|The ruling party's secretive meeting will map out China's economic and social growth for the next five years [Reuters]
China's Communist Party has opened its annual top-level meeting to discuss economic and social growth priorities for its 1.3 billion people, state media has reported.
The official Xinhua news agency said the fifth plenary session opened "to discuss proposals for the nation's next five-year development plan" from 2011 to 2015.
More than 300 members of the party's central committee converged in Beijing on Friday for the secret convention, which is also the venue to review China's growth over the past five years.
Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, last month said the plan would promote "inclusive growth and truly address the social problems" to improve the incomes and welfare of farmers and workers.
The plenary comes amid speculation that political reform could be on the agenda of the four-day gathering, which could include advanced plans intended to secure an economic ascent free of political upheavals.
Speculation is mounting that political reform could be a hot topic after Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, widely viewed as more liberal-minded than President Hu, recently issued an unusually strong call for political reform.
Wen has repeatedly called for more urgent reform of the political system to give citizens more say, but there are no signs that the party meeting will head down that path, at least immediately.
The debate on political reform is seen as intensifying after Liu Xiaobo, a jailed dissident, last week became China's first Nobel Peace Prize winner, infuriating Beijing.
Wen said earlier this month that calls for "democracy and freedom will become irresistible", echoing comments he made in a speech in August.
Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan reports on Chinese leaders' plan to chart the nation's growth over the next five years
Analysts say Wen's remarks reflected the dissatisfaction with what is perceived as a lack of democracy within a party increasingly seen as dominated by Hu.
"The recent statements by Wen represent the views of one faction within the party which hopes to move fast on [reform], but this faction may not necessarily carry the day," Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the AFP news agency.
Meanwhile, a group of 23 former top communist officials and media leaders added to the calls with a bluntly-worded letter to the government calling for freedom of expression.
The letter, circulated on the internet over the past week, warned the party could "die a natural death" if it did not reform.
The authors called on Chinese authorities to free "all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners locked up for ideological, expression or religious reasons".
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group, said China has entered a stage "when it's much more difficult for the party to satisfactorily respond to popular demands".
"This leadership is obsessively risk averse," added Bequelin.
The party meeting also comes as the United States mulls over whether to formally label China a currency manipulator, a classification that could sour ties between the world's two biggest economies.
Hours before such an announcement on Friday, China said it was not fair for the US to make the yuan a scapegoat for its domestic economic problems.
"It is entirely wrong for the United States to make an issue of China's trade surplus and hence put pressure on the yuan exchange rate," Yao Jian, a commerce ministry spokesman, said.
"Other countries have no right to comment on what is a reasonable level for a country's trade surplus."
China's trade surplus narrowed slightly in September but has recovered from the depths of the global financial crisis to average more than $20bn a month for nearly half a year.