Senior members of the Communist Party held an internal poll in mid-May to select their favoured top leaders for the next 10 years, in a significant reformist step that may be institutionalised in the future.
In the poll, about 370 members and alternate members of the party's Central Committee cast preferences for the party's decision-making Politburo, currently a 25-member body, and the Politburo Standing Committee, its inner-most cabinet, according to sources who have knowledge of internal party matters.
Although the ballot may not be decisive in determining the leadership's exact line-up, sources say its results will have an important bearing on the actual selection of the top leaders of the party's 80 million members.
The internal survey is in line with the 'intra-party democracy' idea advocated by the current party secretary, Hu Jintao.
If this experiment goes well and delivers a consensus-based line-up, it may well influence how future succession processes are conducted, insiders say.
One party insider also said the central leadership was very likely to reduce the number of Politburo Standing Committee members from nine to seven when the 18th party congress is held this year.
Besides two sure bets - Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang - those who have a good chance of getting onto the standing committee are: Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng; Vice-Premier and acting Chongqing party chief Zhang Dejiang; Vice-Premier Wang Qishan; top personnel official Li Yuanchao; and propaganda chief Liu Yunshan. Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, State Councillor Liu Yandong and Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli each has an outside chance.
In the past, the top leadership line-up was usually decided by a handful of party strongmen such as late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Not until 2007 did the consensus-based leadership line-up start to take shape.
Before the 17th party congress in 2007, several surveys, both large and small, were conducted among senior party and government officials, retired leaders and even leading non-communists to gauge their views on candidates for promotion, overseas media reports said at the time. Vice-President Xi , Hu's heir-apparent, was said to have received the highest approval rating.
The latest experiment allowed the 370 members and alternate members of the current Central Committee, formed in October 2007, to exercise some degree of power in the selection of candidates for the next leadership line-up.
While it is not known whether a list of approved candidates was provided for last month's vote, a party insider said that members and alternate members of the Central Committee were 'largely' allowed to 'select their leaders of their own will'.
'As everyone in such senior positions knows full well the party's organisational rules and the criteria for the selection of leaders, they can make their own judgment,' said the insider, who has knowledge of the party's selection procedures.
One party insider, a party theorist, confirmed that a secret vote had been conducted ahead of the top leaders' summer summit, known in the past as the Beidaihe meeting, after the seaside resort in Hebei , neighbouring Beijing, where it was held. The meetings, often in mid-June, have continued since Hu came to power but now convene in Beijing. It is where the party's leaders gather to make the most important decisions of the year.
He said it represented great progress in the intra-party democracy that Hu wanted to achieve before he stepped down as head of the party this autumn.
'I, as a party scholar, am surprised by the development,' he said.
Professor Hu Xingdou, a political commentator at Beijing Institute of Technology, agreed, saying it was a very significant step towards intra-party democracy.
'It is democracy with Chinese characteristics and it will have a significant impact on the selection of leaders as the current leaders could hardly deny promotion to those who prove very popular ... or promote those who are unpopular,' Hu said.
He said popularity would matter at the 18th party congress because the current leadership would take note of the poll when finalising the list of nominees to be presented to the new Central Committee.