- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

BEIJING — The ruling Communist Party approved a program Tuesday to enhance its popularity at home and China’s image abroad at a time when the leadership is struggling with domestic unrest and a delicate succession.

Ending a four-day annual policy meeting, the Central Committee - nearly 400 of the power elite including alternates - wrapped up their gathering with the adoption of a communique on boosting China’s cultural influence overseas while reinforcing socialist principles among the increasingly independent-minded population at home.

“More and more, culture is becoming a fount of national cohesiveness and creativity,” the communique said. “More and more, culture is becoming an important element of comprehensive national strength and competitiveness.”

While the gathering’s stated aim was to hammer out the new cultural initiative, the closed-door event was an occasion for networking and jockeying over the transition when President Hu Jintao and many other top leaders begin to step down a year from now.

Although its internal selection process is always secretive, this time it is creating a sense of uncertainty and policy paralysis, given that the economy is slowing and public anger over issues such as corruption is rising.

The broad outlines of the succession have taken shape, with Vice President Xi Jinping expected to replace Mr. Hu and Vice Premier Li Keqiang to take over from Premier Wen Jiabao.

But party power brokers are trying to fill seven other slots in the Politburo Standing Committee and dealing with an uncharacteristically open campaign from Bo Xilai, the telegenic, populist party secretary of the central city of Chongqing.

Reports on the gathering made no direct reference to the leadership maneuvering, apart from saying the gathering had approved a decision to hold the 18th national party congress - a gathering held every five years where leadership changes usually occur - in the second half of next year, as was widely anticipated.

The focus on cultural issues comes at a precarious time for the leadership. Beijing thinks that China’s stunning rise should translate into more respect from other powers and a greater say in world affairs.

Meanwhile, at home, Chinese leaders are under pressure from a public upset over income inequality, corruption, and other ills of rapid growth and feeling entitled by rising prosperity to demand change.

Chinese leaders have tried to bolster their legitimacy with this noisy public by appealing to patriotic sentiments, depicting the West as determined to sabotage the country’s ascent and the party as the bulwark against the threat.

Tuesday’s communique contained copious references to “core socialist values” in an assertion that China’s circumstances are unique and unsuited to Western notions of civil liberties.

Culture began to figure more prominently in party discussions during the 1990s, and recent years have seen huge sums devoted to projects from expanding state media’s presence abroad to building up the local film and publishing industry.

Investments in the cultural sector grew by 22.2 percent last year to $24 billion.

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