The Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress got underway yesterday in Beijing, and to no one's surprise, nothing very important was said or discussed by outgoing Premier Hu Jintao.
Not to be confused with the legislature of the People's Republic, the Congress is essentially a jubilee for the Communist Party. The body has no independent power, and the Congress happens every five years or so, mostly in the fall. This is expected to be Hu's last Congress, after a decade in office, before Vice President Xi Jinping takes over next year.
While China's leaders sit together and mechanically applaud the administration's call for an end to the corruption that's present in every sector of the government, there were no calls for increased freedom of speech, or even the end to the one-child policy, which a government think tank recently recommended should be overturned.
As Hu exits, it seems there is no plan for a shift to individual freedoms on China's horizon.
The Christian Science Monitor reported that Hu clearly signaled the party is not ready for any serious experiments in democracy, declaring that although “we do not follow the old rigid and closed path, nor do we take the evil way of changing flags and banners.”
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Observers agreed that there is little change coming.
“I have no confidence in his anti-corruption comments because he said nothing about institutional reform, nor about opening up the media and allowing freedom of speech [that might help unveil corruption]," said Wen Yunchao, a commentator with the Sun Political Affairs Weekly in Hong Kong, to the Christian Science Monitor.
Freedom of speech certainly faces a continuous uphill battle in China, and not just in the press.
A woman in Shanghai was sent to the notorious Chinese labor camps for a third time as punishment for protesting her treatment in the camps and for protesting the one child policy, reported Reuters.
Introduced in 1980, the "one child policy" limits most couples to one child, and many see it as a relic of a time when China's economic situation was significantly less stable.
Mao Hengfeng was dismissed in 1988 from her job at a soap factory after becoming pregnant with her second child, and has been active protesting against China's one child policy since. She and her husband have three daughters.
"She is not guilty and she didn't break any laws," her husband said to Reuters after recieving notice that she had been sentenced to a year and half in the camps. "[The police] are fabricating offences, making up evidence to lock up people who did not commit crimes in prisons and labor camps."
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China has conceded that the labor camps, which have long drawn the ire of rights groups, need reform. In addition, just this week a government think tank suggested China should remove the one child policy.
The think tank, the China Development Research Foundation is close to party leadership and is under the State Council's jurisdiction. A report that official news agency Xinhua says will be released in a "week or two" suggests the government being phasing out China's one-child policy immediately and allow two children for every family by 2015.
According to the Associated Press, Xinhua said the foundation recommends a two-child policy in some provinces from this year and a nationwide two-child policy by 2015. It proposes all birth limits be dropped by 2020, Xinhua reported.
But there was no mention of either of these possible shifts in policy from Hu at yesterday's Congress and despite movement from within the party, it's unrealistic to expect any real change.
Zhang Lifan, a prominent historian and independent political commentator in Beijing, doesn't believe institutional change is close at hand.
“There were a lot of empty promises in what he said, but I heard nothing practical or feasible,” Zhang said to the Christian Science Monitor.