A prominent economist has published an article in the party's mouthpiece that appears to defend keeping the number of members in China's top decision-making body at nine.
The article in the People's Daily comes amid speculation that the number of seats on the Politburo Standing Committee could be cut from nine to seven.
The nine-member committee was a 'collective presidential system' with Chinese characteristics, which suggests the nine leaders head eight leading state organs, wrote Hu Angang , director of Tsinghua University's Centre for China Studies, in the overseas edition of the Daily on Tuesday.
Hu did not specify the eight leading organs. However, under the current structure, standing committee members have portfolios that cover the party, government, the military, parliament, a government advisory body, party watchdogs, law enforcement and ideology.
'This system is far superior to the 'individual presidential system',' Hu wrote.
The front-page article follows widespread reports of a debate about the ideal number of members for the committee.
Overseas media have reported that the number would be cut from nine to seven. With a few months until the Communist Party holds its 18th congress in Beijing, uncertainty remains over the final line-up of the nation's most powerful decision-making body.
Continued membership of the committee is virtually assured for Vice-President Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who are expected to succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, respectively.
Xi is likely to take over from Hu as party general secretary, and as president next year and, eventually, as chairman of the Central Military Commission. With Xi and Li retaining their seats, reducing the composition to seven would leave only five positions open.
Hu Xingdou , a commentator with the Beijing Institute of Technology, said: 'There is an important message behind the article, as it was published at such a politically sensitive moment and through the party newspaper. At the least it reflects the views of some top leaders.'
Hu Angang was not available for comment yesterday.
Cheng Li, director of research and a senior fellow with the John L. Thornton China Centre at the Brookings Institution, said the number of seats on the committee could easily change, as the party constitution did not specify a fixed number.
The committees formed at the 12th and 13th party congresses in 1982 and 1987 had six members, while committees formed at the 14th and 15th party congresses in 1992 and 1997 had seven. Since the 16th party congress in 2002, it has had nine.
Hu Xingdou said changes to the number of members more often reflected horse-trading among factions, rather than wider social or economic changes that required reshuffling of portfolios.
'It makes little difference whether it is nine or seven in terms of decision making and governing.'
Analysts believe that reducing the committee membership to seven would strengthen Hu Jintao's influence after his retirement.
In his article, Hu Angang said the nine-man body should be characterised by 'collective membership', not 'individual' leadership.
Hu Xingdou could not say whether Hu Angang's emphasis on the 'collective' and his rejection of 'individual' leadership constituted a challenge to President Hu's authority as the first among the equals in the Politburo Standing Committee.
The committee is not a group of equals; each member has a rank and responsibility for a specific portfolio. President Hu is ranked first and is the convenor of both the committee and the Politburo. He also controls some of the most important portfolios.
But like all his colleagues, the president must win consensus for any major decisions.