The ousting of leadership contender Bo Xilai may be a sign of trouble ahead as once-a-decade power transition approaches.

It was the greatest political upheaval in years, but it may not be the last. China's dramatic ousting of the leadership contender Bo Xilai on Friday may have been an anomaly – or it may be a sign of trouble ahead as the world's second largest economy prepares for a once-in-a-decade power transition.

This autumn, the 18th Communist party congress will formally select the next general secretary and other members of China's top political body. Since power flows from the party, the decision – in reality, made before the meeting – will determine who will lead the country and how they will govern its 1.4 billion inhabitants. Bo's high-profile campaigning, which unsettled other leaders, was only the most visible sign of the jockeying for position.

"My guess is that it's going to be a bumpier ride than 10 years ago," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, of Hong Kong Baptist University.

Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University, said: "This is the most intense moment in the past 15 years and could have a big impact on society. The upcoming political competition is healthy and worth anticipating, but could potentially result in instability."

This is the first transition that has not been shaped by the founders of the People's Republic; President Hu Jintao was picked out by Deng Xiaoping. His ascension was the first relatively straightforward succession in its history.

Xi Jinping will almost certainly become general secretary, then president of China, with Li Keqiang as premier. The rest of the incumbents are expected to make way for newer faces – and perhaps the first woman ever to reach the body.

They will face a far more difficult time than their predecessors, said Cheng Li, a specialist on China's elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"There are serious economic, political and social challenges. State monopolies, inflation, a property bubble, huge local debts – each of those things is so overwhelming," he said. "Internationally, China faces a very uncertain and complicated environment. It's not a very nice picture."

China is vastly wealthier and more powerful than when Hu Jintao took power a decade ago. Yet analysts say his legacy is one of maintenance: keeping GDP growth high and preserving party consensus. Critics complain that even much-needed measures, such as improvements to social welfare, have skirted the underlying issues.

Breakneck economic development has come at vast social and environmental cost. Corruption is rife; cynicism more so. While millions have emerged from poverty, many feel worse off – perhaps because inequality has soared. Protests and other disturbances are increasing. This year has seen fresh unrest in Tibetan and Uighur areas. Even the demographics look grim, with a rapidly ageing population.

Reforms have reached a critical stage, the outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, warned last week. Political changes are necessary to reform the economy – and without them, China risks another historical tragedy like the cultural revolution, he said.

Some see Wen as disingenuous; others as isolated. He has repeatedly called for change, though never quite so strongly, and little has happened.

Zhang Jian, of Peking University, noted: "There's a strong demand from civil society for more reforms … I don't see a serious or reliable force within the party that really wants them."

But Russell Leigh Moses, a political analyst in Beijing, suggested that on economic issues, at least, "there's a good deal of healthy rethinking in leadership circles".

A government research body co-wrote last month's World Bank report calling for economic reforms; Li Keqiang reportedly arranged the collaboration.

"I feel a polarisation process between conservatives and reformers on substantive political issues and fundamental orientations is going on," said Cabestan. "The big uncertainty is whether something creates a showdown."

Opportunities for change will depend on who joins the standing committee of the politburo, the top political body, and who takes other senior roles. The general secretary is now first among equals, not a paramount leader like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.

Since them, "the committee has been led by all the members together and the factional fighting has been fierce", said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

The leadership is often divided into "princelings" like Xi – the sons of powerful Communist leaders – and members of Hu's Communist Youth League faction. But such distinctions not only reflect the importance of connections and powerful patrons; to some extent they are used as a proxy for political differences.

This autumn's promotions will offer clues to Xi's ability to impose his will, as will the speed with which he takes over as chair of the party's central military commission.

The standing committee "will also tell us about policy orientation – whether it will be a status quo leadership or one ready to take more daring decisions, initiate more reforms and to some degree take risks", said Cabestan.

"If, for example, Wang Yang [the Guangdong party boss seen as relatively reformist] is promoted to a key position, that may make a difference."

Meaningful change – particularly political reform – will be hard to effect, Cheng Li warned.

The NPC's 70 richest members added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of the US Congress, the president and his cabinet and the US supreme court justices, Bloomberg reported recently. Their average worth of $1.28bn not only makes the favourite for the Republican presidential candidacy, Mitt Romney, look impecunious; it indicates how intertwined political and economic power have become.

"The big question for Xi [is] whether behind his smile and urbane manner he can really be tough when he needs to be," said Cabestan.

Kerry Brown, director of the Asia programme at Chatham House in London, said: "For me, 2012 onwards is going to be a transition from GDP growth to sociopolitical change and the return of politicians; technocrats being replaced by people who actually have to communicate to the public what the policy options are and which choices should be taken and try to build not just consensus in the party, but in society.

"The new leaders are more reformist in their provincial levels. It's a question of what they attack and the speed at which they take those issues. I guess they will be gradualist and my instinct is that they will have to hit these quicker than they expected. Tensions have grown and it isn't sustainable."

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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