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China prepares for power handover but reverberations will be felt worldwide

The world's second-biggest economy will see power shift to Xi Jinping, but its population has no real role in choosing a leader

His new suit is ready, his background reading has been dutifully digested, and Wu Xie'en is all set to play his part in the transfer of power to a new generation of Chinese leaders.

It was, he said solemnly, an honour and a responsibility. "In our country, the Communist party leads everything. We will elect the important national leaders at this meeting. It is very significant: many people's hopes and expectations are attached to it," said Wu, party secretary of Huaxi – "China's richest village" – and one of 2,270 delegates who will gather in Beijing for the 18th party congress on 8 November.

"I think people in other countries will care about the congress, just as we care about the presidential election in the United States," he added.

That may be optimistic, but China's rise means that the handover's reverberations will eventually be felt around the globe.

"Whether you are in the US or UK, what China does matters now," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

Two days after the US goes to the polls, the world's second-largest economy – and a fifth of its population – will see the beginning of the power shift from Hu Jintao and his peers to younger leaders under Xi Jinping.

All but two of the Politburo standing committee, the country's top political body, will step down. About two-thirds of positions in the other key leadership organs and the Central Committee will change hands. Over time, the effects will ripple through the wider party and state systems.

To treat the handover as a standalone event is misleading. In the US, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's neck-and-neck contest will be decided only when polls open. In China, Xi's ascendancy, and Li Keqiang's elevation to replace Premier Wen Jiabao, were signalled at the last party congress in 2007.

The gathering in Beijing next week is merely the manifestation of the backstage process that began years ago, when the jockeying for power started, and will run through to next spring - when Xi becomes president - and even further; his authority will in part depend on when Hu Jintao steps down as chairman of the Central Military Commission, for example.

In the US, the candidates have laid out dramatically different programmes. In China, where a consensus-driven system stresses continuity, it is impossible to know what Xi stands for, what he plans and what he will be able to achieve.

As general secretary, Xi will be first among equals; the composition of the standing committee as a whole, which remains uncertain, will be crucial. And the general course of future policy will be outlined by the congress's political report, hammered out within the party over this year.

The biggest contrast, of course, is that despite Wu's words, even China's 82 million Communist party members – never mind the rest of the 1.4 billion population – have no real role in choosing their leader.

The outside world thinks of Hu foremost as the Chinese president. But he holds that position, and wields his power, because he is general secretary of the party – China's state system is interlocked with the party structure, but subservient to it.

The party congress is at the heart of a procedural facade that presents the handover as the result of an series of bottom-up decisions. In reality, Xi has been chosen by the current leadership, with input from party elders and others.

"The political struggles and the negotiations before and after the Congress are important – the meeting [itself] is just going through the formalities," said Chen Ziming, an independent political scholar based in Beijing.

Delegates like Wu – "elite party members with a firm political stand, virtue, fine working style, excellent achievements and comparatively strong capability", in the words of the state news agency – represent electoral blocs within the party, such as provinces and state-owned enterprises.

They elect the 400 or so members of the central committee, who convene as soon as the congress closes, about a week after it opens, to "elect" the politburo standing committee.

In reality, they are implementing choices made at the top. All of which raises an obvious question: why bother?

"It is a fake phenomenon to show their power," said Jin Zhong, a veteran political analyst based in Hong Kong. Yang suggested that the process "confers some measure of procedural legitimacy within the Communist party".

And while major decisions are reached in advance, there can be minor upsets. Although candidates for the central committee only just outnumber the available places, people have missed out on the jobs they expected after an unexpected failure to make it through. But Yang also pointed out that holding the congress forces those at the top to reach agreement on the new leadership, even if they may not do so until the eleventh hour.

This year has proved a bumpier ride than many expected, and not just thanks to the toppling of the Chongqing party secretary, Bo Xilai, who is under investigation by criminal prosecutors. His wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood, but even if that scandal had not erupted, Bo's evident ambition and populist campaigning had alarmed many in the party. The organisation brought to power by Mao Zedong has worked for years to institutionalise politics and prevent the rise of another charismatic, destabilising figure.

The party elite is all the more nervous because this is the first succession not ordained by the founders of the People's Republic. Deng Xiaoping, then paramount leader , anointed Hu as Jiang Zemin's successor as general secretary, but – by design – no one wields that kind of authority within the party these days.

"It is not a smooth transition. It is full of contradictions and struggles and compromises too," said Li Weidong, a Beijing-based political commentator and former magazine editor. Some believe that even now there is disagreement over who will join the standing committee, though others insist a deal has been reached.

"This time, the political struggle is more intensive than the past," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based scholar. "I don't think the political struggles have finished. I think they have just finished the first round. It will last until the National Congress finishes, until the final name list of the standing committee comes out. It is just like they are playing bridge, and bidding."