With a few months to go before the Communist Party holds its 18th congress in Beijing many uncertainties linger over the final line-up of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's inner-most cabinet and the nation's most powerful decision-making body.
Even the exact dates of the congress, when almost 2,300 party delegates will gather in the Great Hall of the People to see a fifth generation of leaders take over from the fourth, have yet to be confirmed. For now, all we know is that it will be held some time in the autumn. The transfer of power, when it happens, will be the most important change in leadership in decades, but the transition may not go as smoothly as first thought.
The reshuffle will see many newcomers take up critical positions in interlocking party, state and military institutions. Around 200 out of 350 Central Committee members and alternate members are scheduled to retire this year, along with up to 17 of the 25 members of the Politburo, its governing body.
Membership of the new, all-important Politburo Standing Committee is assured for Vice-President Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who will succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao , respectively, and therefore retain their committee membership. It is widely believed that Xi will take over from Hu as party general secretary, state president (next year) and, eventually, chairman of the Central Military Commission.
This means that most of the interest in the meeting this autumn will be focused on those who will fill up to seven vacancies on the Politburo Standing Committee. Some analysts say the number of committee members is not set in stone and that one woman, State Councillor Liu Yandong, is a contender for membership. At least one party source also says that the number of committee members will be cut from nine to seven, reducing the number of vacancies to five, after Xi and Li retain their seats.
Cheng Li, director of research at the John L. Thornton China Centre at the Brookings Institution, said it was more important than ever for the outside world to understand the looming changes in the committee make-up and membership.
'The newcomers will hold most of the reins controlling the country's political and ideological affairs, economic and financial administration, foreign policy, public security and military operations,' Li wrote in a paper titled 'The Battle for China's Top Nine Leadership Posts' published in The Washington Quarterly this year.
However, three decades after China embraced free-market reform and opened up to globalisation, the country's palace-style politics remain as inscrutable as ever. With a changing of the guard imminent, outsiders still know astonishingly little about the looming changes, and how they will take place.
Even the mainland public will not know for sure who their new helmsman will be until he - presumably Xi - leads the new committee members onto the stage at the end of the congress, with the rest following in descending order of seniority.
Kerry Brown, head of the Asia programme at London's Chatham House, said he believes that much of the uncertainty is a result of the long-running institutionalisation of party procedures instigated under then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, which remains a work in progress.
'While there will be an election of sorts by the new Central Committee of about 350 people in late 2012, there is little doubt that the outcomes will have already been largely established by the time this happens,' said Brown, the author of several books on Chinese politics. His latest, Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler, was published in April.
Since Mao Zedong, who controlled the country until his death in 1976, each Chinese leader has been weaker than his predecessor. And Deng, the last strongman, dictated the next two power transitions, by picking Jiang Zemin as the third generation leader and Hu as the fourth. But this year's change will be decided by a so-called 'collective leadership', which suggests bargaining among various factions, interest groups, current leaders and influential party elders.
It is rare for so many leadership positions to become available at the same time at a party congress and that has made competition among factions and contenders for top positions more intense. The recent sacking of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and his suspension from the Politburo has added fuel to the internal power struggle.
Bo, once a leading contender for committee membership, launched a populist 'election' campaign in defiance of the top leadership and even engaged, via the media, in a political debate with Guangdong party chief Wang Yang , his predecessor and ideological rival.
The contest between Bo and Wang, who is also a Politburo member and a contender for committee membership, offered a rare glimpse of the factional battles inside the party, with analysts saying the country has never before witnessed such overt political lobbying.
Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham and director of its China Policy Institute, said the upcoming leadership change will be a tough one, in light of the uncertainties unleashed by Bo's downfall.
'Bo's ouster opens up the competition and makes it much less clear in terms of who will move up,' Tsang said. 'Much will depend on how events and the power balance unfold in the next several months or so.'
However, Minxin Pei, an expert on China's leadership and senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes Bo's elimination from the race should make the process less contentious and may help produce a more 'harmonious' leadership team. But Pei concedes that, 'obviously, the shortlist for the next Politburo Standing Committee has to be redrawn'.
While many China-watchers see the distribution of the remaining positions as being akin to a game of musical chairs, they also caution that dark horses can often emerge. Xi and Li Keqiang, for example, were not Politburo members when they were appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th party congress in 2007, so there might still be some surprises.
David Shambaugh, professor and director of the China policy programme at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, said the selection process balances four factors: the preferences of outgoing and former leaders, particularly Hu and Wen but also Jiang; age thresholds; functional portfolios and background; and factional balances.
'It is key to have had experience managing not only a province or two, but also of a Communist Party Central Committee department, such as propaganda, united front, organisation, Central Discipline Inspection Commission, international liaison, general office, or policy research office,' Shambaugh said. He added that those who had both would have an advantage.
'While I do not give as much emphasis to this factor as some, I do think that balancing the tuanpai versus taizi factions plays some role,' Shambaugh said. The tuanpai are those with links to the Youth League, Hu's power base, while the taizi are the princelings.
Analysts say the two coalitions not only compete for power for its own sake, but also compete because they represent different socio-economic and geographical constituencies. Most of the top leaders in the elitist coalition, for example, come from families of veteran revolutionaries and high-ranking officials. By contrast, most of the populist coalition's leading figures come from less-privileged families.
The Hu-Wen coalition tends to favour people-oriented policy while Jiang's is more pro-business, but Brown said the make-up of the next Politburo Standing Committee would offer something new. He said some of the contenders had implemented administrative reforms and tried out new methods of governance during their provincial careers and many had trained as economists.
The dominance of Tsinghua and Peking universities will also weaken, as new figures from provincial universities take up leadership positions.
'In this sense, the new leaders will be more diverse than their predecessors,' Brown said.