Top officials from China's Communist Party met Saturday for the most important annual conference of the year as they prepare for a sweeping change in the leadership starting next fall.

The 200-plus Central Committee members and more than 150 alternates drawn from the government, the provinces and the military are meeting in Beijing at a time when the focus is mainly on sustaining economic growth and employment while battling politically sensitive inflation.

It is also trying to control high housing prices and address festering social and economic problems that have caused unrest in rural areas and the industrial heartland in the south.

Party elites will also try to dampen infighting over who will lead China when President Hu Jintao and many in his collective leadership must retire a year from now. Hu will be seeking to reinforce his position and ensuring that his allies are secured key positions.

China prefers to keep such machinations behind the scenes as much as possible and the four-day, closed-door meeting is not expected to bring any substantive changes.

At the conclusion of last year's meeting, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was promoted to vice chairman of a key Communist Party military committee in the clearest sign yet he remains on track to take over as the country's future leader.

Rivalries among the leadership are never discussed in China's state controlled media and Saturday's reports on the meeting mentioned only its stated agenda of "reforming the cultural system."

"The central authorities have realized that culture has increasingly become a major source of national cohesion and creativity, a major factor in the competition of comprehensive national strength, and a backbone of the country's economic and social development," the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Previewing the theme of the meeting, China's propaganda chief Li Changchun last month said China needs a strong "ideological line of defense" to guard against harmful Western influences. He decried declining morality that was fueling public anger at a time of rising protests.