Generational change on hold
Expected Standing Committee line-up suggests a more meaningful transition of power will most likely take place at the 19th congress in 2017
In the opaque world of Chinese politics there is nothing more secretive and intriguing than the changes scheduled to be announced next week in the top leadership.
The 18th Communist Party Congress, which begins on Thursday, will elect leaders to steer the world's second-largest economy for the next 10 years.
Both the overseas and mainland media have billed the event as a once-in-a-decade generational transition, with power being handed over to the next generation.
Seven of the nine Politburo Standing Committee members will retire because of their age and term limits.
Of the remaining two, Vice-President Xi Jinping, 59, is set to take over as party chief at the congress and the state presidency in March from Hu Jintao, 70. Li Keqiang, 57, is expected to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao, also 70.
But the line-up of the other likely members of the new Standing Committee hardly suggests a generational change of power.
As the South China Morning Post reported last week, they include Vice-Premier and Chongqing party chief Zhang Dejiang, 65, propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, 65, Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng, 67, Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli, 65, and Vice-Premier Wang Qishan, 64.
As all of them are already in their mid-60s they are expected to serve only one five-year term.
If this list turns out to be true, it signals that a more meaningful generational transition is most likely to take place at the 19th congress in 2017, when more youthful officials would be elected into the Standing Committee.
It also sends a clear message that the authorities have chosen stability and continuity over a new breed of officials, including Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, the powerful head of the party's Organisation Department responsible for personnel appointments. Wang, 57, and Li, 62, until recently strong contenders for top party posts, have seen their chances dimmed largely because of age, ironically. It is believed both of them are still deemed relatively young and could still make it to the Standing Committee in the 2017 reshuffle. More importantly, they are well known for their reformist outlook.
This has prompted liberal officials and thinkers to express dismay about the rumoured list dominated by the old guard. They doubt the line-up has the courage and wisdom to push for much-needed political and economic reform to put the country on a healthier growth track.
So it is intriguing to note that Hu Deping, son of late party chief and reform icon Hu Yaobang, has urged the party to honour its promise and not give up on reforms. His article published by state media at the weekend was clearly aimed at making a last-ditch effort to sway the agenda of the congress.
This can only mean that the final line-up of the Standing Committee may be subject to change right up until the new leaders are paraded in the Great Hall of the People on the last day of the congress. One telling sign is that unlike for other key meetings, authorities have not given a closing date for the congress, presumably to allow more time and flexibility for factions to slug it out before reaching a consensus.