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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Reform could be in the air in China in the run-up to a once-in-a-decade transition of power, but China's leaders are still wrestling with the fallout of a damaging scandal that's brought down one of its most powerful politicians. So, what will happen? The perplexing task of reading the tea leaves has fallen to NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: I'm standing near the compound where the men who rule China live. Who knows what intense power struggles have been going on behind these oxblood walls these past few months. But outside these walls, there's growing criticism.

SUSAN SHIRK: I don't think these 10 years will be seen as having achieved all that much for China.

LIM: That's Susan Shirk, a China expert at the University of California, San Diego. She says political reform has stalled, while economic reforms have been rolled back.

SHIRK: It looks like the leaders were feathering their own nest, creating patronage for themselves, rather than pursuing an economic policy that really distributed the benefits of development broadly to the people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: The party is reeling from the downfall of disgraced politician Bo Xilai. State TV says he's being investigated for abuse of power, corruption, improper relationships with and involvement in a murder. Now, calls for reform are mounting. Even a party publication called Seeking Truth has joined in. This is significant, according to historian Zhang Lifan.

ZHANG LIFAN: (Through Translator) That a conservative magazine is singing about reform shows a change in attitude at the top. I don't think they've reached consensus on how reform will be carried out. They just realize they can't continue as before.

LIM: Some see Chinese elite politics as having two informal coalitions, the populists, who rose through the Communist Youth League and include the top two leaders right now; and the princelings, the descendants of old revolutionaries. That category includes Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping, the man who will be China's next president. Historian Zhang sees the current situation like this.

ZHANG: (Through Translator) The regime is like a company. The Youth League are like professional managers. The princelings are like descendants of the shareholders. For the past decade, the managers have been in charge. But the descendants think the Youth League managed the company badly, so they want to take over.

XI JINPING: (Speaking in foreign language)

LIM: China's next president, Xi Jinping, is the son of revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun. His father's political legacy gives hope to reformists like Bao Tong, a former senior official who spent seven years in prison after 1989.

BAO TONG: (Through Translator) If he's like his father, there'll be hope. His father was very upright. He was a good person. He didn't talk about reform, but he did seek fairness.

LIM: But the new president isn't all-powerful. He'll be first among equals, in a collective leadership. But so far, no one knows if that committee will be nine people - as it is right now - or fewer. So everything is in flux. Even things that look clear, might not be. Historian Zhang warns about the danger of oversimplification.

ZHANG: (Through Translator) Westerners think black is black, and white is white. How could they know that for Chinese, black contains white, white contains red, red contains black; everything is mixed. It's rather complicated.

LIM: Complicated, indeed. And in less than three weeks, here at the Great Hall of the People, a new chapter in China's political history begins. We know change is coming. But how much change, nobody knows. As with so much in China, the only certainty right now, is uncertainty. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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