With the country under Communist rule since 1949 facing numerous challenges including the slowing of its once explosive double-digit economic growth, President Hu Jintao called on all party members and the Chinese people to "march on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and strive to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects," the official Xinhua News agency reported.
Hu, who will be one of the top leaders expected to step down under the once-a-decade change of leadership system, delivered his keynote report to the new 18th congress on behalf of the 17th Communist Party of China Central Committee.
About 2,300 delegates, representing more than 80 million party members, and invited guests were attending the week-long event whose long-worded theme is to "hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics ... free up the mind, implement the policy of reform and opening up, pool our strength, overcome all difficulties ... "
Hu said after 90 years of hard struggle, the party has led the people of all ethnic groups in the country into an increasingly prosperous and powerful new China.
"At present, as the global, national and our Party's conditions continue to undergo profound changes, we are faced with unprecedented opportunities for development as well as risks and challenges unknown before," said Hu, who is expected to be succeeded by Xi Jinping.
China, despite its achievements, remains highly secretive and tightly controlled by a handful of powerful leaders and committees with little public accountability, an issue that is being increasingly challenged and questioned by dissidents and rights activists.
The party congress is in glaring contrast to the United States, which just completed an open and highly publicized democratic presidential election that saw President Barack Obama winning a second term.
Despite claims by the Chinese Communist Party of lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, the country remains plagued by monumental official corruption, festering ethnic and political tensions as witnessed by troubles in its northwest Xinjiang-Uighur region, home to the Turkic-speaking minority Muslim Uighurs, and the series of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule of their land.
In foreign affairs, China, despite its powerful military and nuclear weapons, is strongly opposed by its small neighbors challenging its claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea. China is also involved in escalating tensions with Japan over a territorial dispute to a group of East China Sea islands.
The United State's new policy pivot in the Asia-Pacific region is also a major source of concern for China.
It is not clear if the new Chinese leadership under Xi would succeed in instituting major democratic reforms and change the course of the country from its one-party rule.
The New York Times said most of what is expected at the party meeting has already been decided.
Praising the Chinese system, Cai Mingzhao, the chief spokesman for the congress, told reporters earlier: "We must combine centralism on the basis of democracy, with democracy under centralized guidance so that we will create a political situation in the party in which we have both centralism and democracy, both discipline and freedom, both unity of will and personal ease of mind."
Besides Xi, other leadership changes may include Li Keqiang, the likely successor to Premier Wen Jiabao. Both are currently in the nine-member Standing Committee.
The Times said experts have been speculating on who will be the new members of the Standing Committee.
Cai referred to the recent scandal relating to disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai and former railway minister Liu Zhijun, and was quoted as saying the party had learned profound lessons from such scandals.
Prior to the start of the congress, the party's Qiushi Journal magazine called for confidence in the country's future.
"There are ample reasons for us to have high expectations and confidence in the future development of our country," said the journal, the flagship magazine of the party's Central Committee. The journal said the party and the Chinese people will keep their words and fulfill established goals.
Security has been so tightened in Beijing that even those riding cabs would be prevented from throwing any anti-government messages out the vehicle. The New York Times had quoted a provincial police department that it would be like a "state of war" during the event as even kitchen knives have disappeared from store shelves and access to the Internet mysteriously slowed.