HONG KONG -- The 16th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, being held this week in Beijing, marks a pivotal period in Chinese history. For the first time since the Communists won the civil war in 1949, power is being transferred without bloodshed or a political upheaval.

The voluntary handover of power by Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other members of his generation to a younger leadership is a step toward the institutionalization of China's political system. It is the culmination of plans laid by the late Deng Xiaoping a decade ago, when he picked the then 49-year-old Hu Jintao for membership in the party's most powerful body, the standing committee of the Politburo, to groom him for leadership.

However, there is still no institution in place to produce the next leader, should Hu falter. Instead, the likelihood is that retired party elders, supposedly without power, would step in with a new candidate. This is what happened in 1986 when Hu Yaobang was removed as party leader, and again in 1989 when Zhao Ziyang was ousted as the party's general secretary and replaced by Jiang.