BEIJING -- A key meeting of Chinese policymakers began Monday, as the country's top leaders grapple with how to strengthen control within the Communist Party as it faces problems including unrest in Hong Kong.
Observers will be watching the four-day Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee for the possibility of changes at the top, including a potential expansion of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body, from its current seven members.
The plenary session takes place amid a number of challenges for President Xi Jinping's government at home and abroad.
China and the U.S. reached a preliminary trade deal after ministerial talks earlier this month, but so far Beijing has not persuaded the Trump administration to remove tariffs on Chinese exports. And there is no end in sight for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong after major demonstrations began in June.
The previous plenary session, or plenum, was held in February 2018, the longest gap since former leader Deng Xiaoping introduced China's "reform and opening up" policy in the late 1970s. A person with knowledge of party affairs speculates the delay occurred because "it took time to reach a consensus within the party over an approach to the U.S. in the trade war and handling Hong Kong."
The Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported on speculation that Chen Min'er, the party secretary for Chongqing, and Vice Premier Hu Chunhua -- both of whom are on the 25-member Politburo Central Committee -- may be promoted to the standing committee. Reports suggest the committee may be expanded to nine members from seven.
Other Chinese media outlets cite speculation that only Chen may be promoted to the standing committee. Both men were born in the 1960s and are seen as part of the post-Xi generation.
This week's session may fulfill the role usually played by third plenary sessions, which often deal with fundamental economic policy issues. Last year's third plenum was largely taken up by debate on revisions to the constitution, including an end to presidential term limits, leaving no time for economic discussion.
Another plenary session was expected last fall, when these meetings typically take place, but ultimately was not held.
Communist Party rules call for Central Committee plenary sessions to be held at least once a year, with important decisions made between sessions of the party's national congress, which are held once every five years.
Major personnel changes have taken place at past fourth plenary sessions. In 2004, Jiang Zemin stepped down as chairman of the Central Military Commission and was succeeded by then-President Hu Jintao.