Horse trading under way in earnest
Billed as one of the world's most watched programmes, CCTV's daily prime-time news at 7pm, known as Xinwen Lianbo, easily draws as many as 100 million viewers daily, mainly because it is required to be shown simultaneously by most terrestrial television channels on the mainland.
For most of the year, the first 10 to 15 minutes of the programme is dominated by the public activities of the nine members of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, with the broadcast of news items prioritised by the rankings of the nine rather than the importance of the news. It has become a must-see programme for any China watcher trying to make sense of the mainland's opaque politics.
However, there is an exception to that broadcast routine. For one or two weeks in late July and early August every year, the national leaders habitually disappear from the telecast while they decamp to the summer resort area of Beidaihe in Hebei to escape the stifling heat in Beijing. The annual affair is closely watched at home and overseas, as the officials usually hold informal meetings to discuss and approve important policies and personnel changes.
But state media are forbidden from reporting on those Beidaihe meetings, and for many outsiders, the telltale signs come simply from the absence of CCTV's news items involving the leaders.
This year, the Beidaihe meetings are even more important, as they are the last opportunity for the various factions of current and retired leaders to undertake intense horse trading and decide on the new leadership line-up - namely the composition of the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee - to be officially unveiled at the party's 18th congress later this year.
Signs indicate the leaders are already there and the meetings have already started, as there has not been any news involving top national leaders since Saturday. And last night came unmistakable confirmation, with CCTV reporting that Vice President Xi Jinping attended a public meeting in Beidaihe.
In fact, mainland sources said that incumbent or retired leaders and their family members started arriving in Beidaihe late last month.
The negotiating sessions are expected to be tough, not least because the already intense jockeying for power has been further complicated by the political scandal involving the downfall of Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing and once a high-flying Politburo member.
At the meetings, the leaders are expected to decide on the opening date of the congress. Thus far, they have deliberately kept it vague, saying only that the congress would begin in the autumn, amid persistent speculation that it could be delayed because of the fallout from the Bo scandal.
Some mainland sources have suggested that the opening date is most likely to be some time in October - the same month as the last congress - to send a message that everything is under control.
A more difficult issue to be settled at the meetings is whether the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee should remain at nine members or be reduced to seven, as this could affect the way the country is governed. Until 10 years ago, when former President Jiang Zemin expanded the size of the committee before his retirement, the committee usually comprised five to seven members.
Now President Hu Jintao is believed to be the key force behind efforts to reduce the size to seven before his retirement. His experience has shown that with nine members, it is very difficult to reach a consensus over tough issues. It appears that most of the factions have agreed in principle to reduce the size of the committee to seven.
If the smaller size is adopted at the meeting, that would also make it easier to speculate on the composition of the standing committee. (Determining the seven strongest candidates has long been a favourite pastime of anyone interested in mainland politics.)
While everyone has their own favourites, the following six invariably top lists: Xi and Vice Premier Li Keqiang are the safest bets, as they are already Politburo Standing Committee members and appear certain to take over from Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao. The other four almost certain candidates are Li Yuanchao, the head of the Organisation Department; Yu Zhengsheng, the party secretary of Shanghai; Zhang Dejiang, the party secretary of Chongqing, and Vice-Premier Wang Qishan .
It is interesting to note that Wang topped an informal poll for the membership of the standing committee because of his popularity and his deep knowledge of economic affairs. The poll, containing a list of candidates, was reportedly conducted among several hundred high-ranking mainland officials several weeks ago.
The candidate for the seventh slot still remains unclear, as there are several strong competitors. But the latest speculation is that Zhang Gaoli, the party secretary of Tianjin, is the dark horse with a strong chance.