By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao has called for unity in the ruling Communist Party and unflinching backing for economic reforms in the face of "unprecedented challenges", as Beijing struggles with a scandal-hit leadership transition and economic slowdown.
Hu's speech to dozens of top officials dominated the front pages of China's major state-run newspapers on Tuesday, a sign of its importance in setting the themes for a party congress late this year that will install a new generation of leaders.
Using jargon-laden political slogans, Hu laid out two themes likely to dominate the congress: a call for conformity after the contentious dismissal of one-time leadership contender Bo Xilai; and a defense of Hu's efforts to shift the economy to more balanced, equitable growth driven by domestic consumption.
"We confront unprecedented opportunities and also confront unprecedented challenges," Hu said in the speech given to officials on Monday.
"We must unwaveringly take the correct course pioneered by the party and the people over a long period, and neither flinch in the face of any dangers nor be distracted by any interference," he said.
Hu did not mention the downfall of Bo, the ambitious party chief of Chongqing in southwest China who was ousted in March over a scandal centered on accusations that Bo's wife killed a British businessman. Nor did Hu lay out new policies.
But Hu, 69, made clear that he sees keeping up economic growth and sharing more gains from that growth with workers and farmers -- a theme he has labeled his "scientific outlook on development" -- as his major political legacy and a policy that his successors must also follow.
"The theme of a scientific outlook on development, featuring an accelerated transformation of the mode of economic development, is a strategic choice that bears on our country's whole pattern of development," said Hu.
The meeting where Hu spoke was also a show of unity by the Communist Party elite, bringing together central leaders and many provincial-level officials who are candidates for promotion into the next generation of central leaders. The meeting was chaired by Hu's likely successor, Vice President Xi Jinping.
Xi, 59, is virtually certain to replace Hu as Communist Party chief later this year, and then as state president when the national parliament convenes in March next year.
"There was nothing new in the speech about economic or political reform, but it seems Hu was reiterating the consensus about the direction of policy and stressing that there should be no changes in it," said Wu Si, editor-in-chief of the Yanhuang Chunqiu, a Beijing-based magazine that favors political reform to China's one-party state.
"It's saying amid all the controversy that this is Hu's key theme and he expects it to remain the consensus," said Wu.
China's economy slowed for a sixth successive quarter to 7.6 percent in the April-June period, its slackest pace in more than three years and a rate only just above the government's 7.5 percent target for 2012.
The ousted Bo cast himself as a populist with his own recipe for shoring up growth while reversing China's yawning social inequalities. Premier Wen Jiabao accused Bo of betraying the policies of market-led economic reform.
"Only reform and opening up can develop China," Hu told the officials, who included Wen.
Over coming weeks, China's top leaders, including retired party elders, are likely to gather for informal meetings that will seek agreement on the next leadership lineup and policy themes that will dominate the 18th Party Congress.
Traditionally, the leaders have gathered at Beidaihe, a beachside retreat on China northeast coast. Wu, the editor, said they were likely to do so again this year, but the meetings are never officially announced.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Mark Bendeich)