BEIJING (Reuters) - China's leaders ended their latest closed-door conclave on Tuesday with a decision to hold a Communist Party congress in the second half of 2012 to install successors to President Hu Jintao's generation.
That decision will put onto a formal footing preparations for the handover of power in the world's second biggest economy, with a preparatory group for the congress probably headed by Vice President Xi Jinping, the man virtually assured of succeeding Hu as party and state leader.
The five-day meeting of the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee also passed a decision on "cultural reform" -- the government's push to invigorate state-run publishers, broadcasters and performers -- Chinese television reported.
But news reports shed little light on what else was discussed at the meeting, including possibly preparations for the long-expected succession and prospects for economic growth, which slowed a little in the third quarter, according to statistics released on Tuesday.
The 2012 party congress will take place in a "crucial period" of China's efforts at "deepening of reform and opening up, and the transformation of the pattern of economic development," said the Xinhua news agency, summarizing the outcome of the Central Committee meeting.
Central committee plenums are annual gatherings of some 370 senior officials -- about 200 full committee members, the rest are auxiliary members -- who approve broad decisions on the direction of government policy.
In China, power resides in the party elite and meetings of the Central Committee offer chances for provincial chieftains to make known their policies and promotion hopes.
The 18th central committee will be chosen at the party congress due to convene in late 2012, succeeding the current, 17th central committee.
Potential contenders for top positions who gathered in Beijing included: Bo Xilai, the charismatic boss of Chongqing municipality in the southwest, who has promoted an ambitious program to narrow economic inequalities; Wang Yang, the boss of export-driven Guangdong province in the south, who has cast himself as a more liberal leader; and Yu Zhengsheng, the boss of Shanghai, the country's coastal business center.
In economic policy, the Central Committee members may have discussed, but probably did not decide on, any big changes to a fast-growing economy that has suffered from nagging inflation and worries about a global economic downturn, analysts said earlier.
But the official public focus was on the cultural reforms, which the meeting said were needed to project Chinese influence and values to a wider world.
"Culture is emerging as an important part of the country's comprehensive competitiveness in today's world," said the official communique of the meeting, according to Xinhua.
"China's cultural industry will play a more critical part in the country's economic and social development."
Beijing has spent heavily on television, newspaper and Internet projects to promote its views. But those initiatives come encumbered with censorship and controls that the latest promised reforms are unlikely to dilute.
President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao step down from their Communist Party posts at the congress in late 2012, but hang on to their state and government jobs until early 2013, when the national parliament will vote in their successors.
Wen is likely to be succeeded by Vice Premier Li Kiqiang, a former law student who rose through the Communist Party Youth League, marking him as a protege of President Hu.
Hu could also emulate his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who stayed on as chairman of China's Central Military Commission for more than a year after giving up the presidency, using his status as military chief as a platform to influence policy.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Robert Birsel)