Influence of predecessors will test Xi Jinping's political skills
As party hierarchy meet to select 'fifth generation' of officials, the new leader faces an awkward transition
With the Communist Party's 18th congress just weeks away, the overseas media has focused upon the summer resort of Beidaihe where mainland leaders are slugging it out behind closed doors to pick the so-called fifth generation of officials to lead the country for the next 10 years.
The latest speculation from Beidaihe is that the horse-trading has been intense, indicating that the question of who the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee will be may not be settled until the last minute.
Even though the Beidaihe meetings are expected to wrap up this week as the leaders return to Beijing, the suspense over the new leadership line-up is most likely to continue until the congress, scheduled for sometime in October.
Despite the heightened political uncertainty, there is every reason to believe the transfer of power will be orderly and peaceful, not least because Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang , who are groomed to take over as president and premier respectively, already sit on the Politburo Standing Committee.
As is the custom, the outside world will get a first glimpse of the new leadership line-up only on the last day of the congress when Xi leads the other new members onto a stage in front of reporters in the Great Hall of the People.
But Xi's leadership will be far from smooth, not only because the mainland's development is at a critical turning point and the party's legitimacy is facing mounting challenges due to the rampant official corruption and the rising gap between rich and poor.
Xi will also have to grapple with a new kind of politics in which the decision-making process will be increasingly complicated by various factions within the top leadership.
A case in point is that after Xi takes over, he will face a situation unique in the history of the party in which two of his retired predecessors are still alive and healthy and can wield considerable influence through their residual power and their supporters within the leadership. Ironically, this should be seen as a major progression from the large part of the party's history in which the abnormal leadership succession had proved to be the single biggest source of instability.
The party's first peaceful transfer of power took place in 2002 and 2003 when Jiang Zemin resigned as party chief and state president to make way for Hu Jintao . However, Jiang set a controversial precedent by remaining chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Despite his full retirement in 2004, Jiang is still believed to wield considerable power and is consulted on major policies and personnel changes, with his name ranked only after Hu's in the party hierarchy. Jiang, who will turn 87 on Friday, is believed to be frail but still healthy. He is understood to play a key role in naming and approving candidates for the new leadership line-up.
Meanwhile, Hu, 70, will step down as the party chief at the congress and as president in March, making way for Xi. But there are suggestions that Hu's supporters have urged him to follow Jiang's precedent by staying on as the CMC chairman for a year or two.
The latest speculation is that Hu prefers full retirement. Even so, his influence will remain strong, and how Xi manages the triangular relations with Hu and Jiang will be a stern test of his political skills.