All eyes on whether key post goes to Xi Jinping
The annual plenum of the Communist Party's Central Committee will draw to a close today, and a communique endorsing the next five-year plan (2011-15) is expected.
But all eyes will be on whether Vice-President Xi Jinping will be promoted to deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission.
With vice-presidency and a leading role on the Central Committee's powerful Secretariat, the latest military promotion, if announced today, will cement his status as the likely successor to take over power in 2012.
Xi's promotion is important as it will mark a new phase for the delicate preparations for the leadership succession in autumn 2012, when the party's 18th congress is scheduled.
That congress will see the transition of power from the fourth generation of leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to the fifth generation - including Xi and Li Keqiang , currently the executive vice-premier.
Although it is still two years away, Xi's promotion is likely to spur further speculation over the most important positions in the new leadership line-up, namely the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee.
But trying to predict personnel changes in the mainland leadership is always a foolhardy endeavour, not least because of the utmost secrecy surrounding this issue. So far, few of those positions have been settled and many rounds of lobbying and horse-trading among different factions are expected in the next two years until the final compromise is reached. Other variables also include the degree of influence Hu will wield to promote his allies after he retires in 2012, and that of former president Jiang Zemin - who is believed to still hold considerable sway within the party even though he retired in 2004.
In this context, it is interesting to note the rumours began circulating in Beijing a week before the plenum that Jiang's health was failing - and even that he had died.
But going by past experience, it is possible to make an educated guess as to the leadership change in 2012 - particularly after Hu took over from Jiang in 2002, a process billed as the first orderly transition of power in the history of the People's Republic.
The age limitation and term limits appear to be institutionalised for leadership changes.
Except for Xi and Li, all other seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee will have reached the age of 68, the yardstick for retirement for Politburo members, or older. Those include Hu, who will be 70, and Wen, also 70 - both of whom will have served two terms. While Xi is set to take over from Hu, Li is generally expected to succeed Wen as the premier.
But beyond those two, the list is wide open. Ask informed analysts or officials, and each will produce their own list. But the following group of candidates is generally believed to be in with a stronger chance: Vice-Premier Wang Qishan , 62, Li Yuanchao , 60, director of the party's powerful Organisation Department, Wang Yang , 55, the party boss of Guangdong, Bo Xilai , 61, the party boss of Chongqing, and Hu Chunhua , 47, the party boss of Inner Mongolia .
Of that list, Bo and Hu are controversial choices. Bo, a son of former party leader Bo Yibo , caused a stir on the mainland last year by launching two citywide campaigns. The first was against triads, leading to the arrests of several dozen officials and businessmen. The second was encouraging residents to sing revolutionary songs. These dual campaigns of 'attacking the black [society] and singing the red [songs]' have won him nationwide support but caused some discomfort among top leaders over his true intentions.
Hu Chunhua, one of the youngest provincial party secretaries, is widely known as a strong ally of President Hu and a rising political star. Some analysts have already seen the younger Hu as a strong candidate to lead the sixth-generation leadership from 2022. Promoting the younger Hu to the Standing Committee or at least the Politburo will be seen as the key test of the older Hu's influence.
Another interesting development is that there have been growing calls within the party for cutting the number of seats on the standing committee from nine to seven to facilitate better and quicker decision-making while expanding the Politburo.
Looking at the recent party history, particularly from 1978, the sizes of the previous standing committees ranged from five to seven. At the 16th party congress in 2002, however, the Standing Committee was expanded from seven to nine members - a move some Western analysts interpreted as engineered by retiring president Jiang to maintain his influence by promoting more allies.