Just one week before the Communist Party's landmark 17th congress, at which a major leadership reshuffle will be approved, something very strange has occurred in Beijing's corridors of power.
The rumour mill is still circulating with wildly different versions of the new leadership lineup that will be unveiled at the close of the congress. It remains far from clear whether the size of the Politburo Standing Committee will be reduced to seven or remain at nine, and whether President Hu Jintao will be able to fill the committee mostly with his supporters, or whether he will have to bow to pressure from other party factions to maintain a delicate balance of power. Previously pundits have always been able to predict the new leadership with some degree of confidence.
The uncertainty underlines the intense jockeying for power, which is still under way and has prompted some overseas media and analysts to voice concerns about a more volatile political climate in future.
There is no need to be overly concerned, however. The uncertainty may provide an unexpected impetus to promote so-called 'intra-party democracy', which may allow more than 2,000 party delegates a bigger say in electing or rejecting candidates through competitive elections. If this proves to be the case, it will further help to institutionalise the party's internal succession, which has always been one of the most destabilising issues facing the mainland leadership.
This congress is important, not only because it will allow Mr Hu to cement his standing and authority, but because it should provide a distinctive group of rising stars ready to take over the leadership when he steps down in 2012.
But many overseas analysts have seemingly staked Mr Hu's authority on whether he can manoeuvre his protege Li Keqiang , the 52-year-old Liaoning party secretary, into the Politburo Standing Committee and make him his anointed successor. This is what happened in 1992, when Deng Xiaoping made Mr Hu, then party secretary of Tibet , the anointed heir by elevating him to the Standing Committee.
But as argued in previous issues of this column, neither Mr Hu nor anybody else in the party these days has the clout to do this single-handedly. That is why Xi Jinping , 54, the new party secretary of Shanghai, is also seen as a strong candidate to join the Standing Committee. The best scenario would be if most of the incumbent Standing Committee members retired to make way for younger officials in their 50s so that they can prove their mettle in the next five years before a suitable heir is chosen. In this scenario, only Mr Hu, 64, National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo , 66, and possibly Premier Wen Jiabao , 65, will remain.
Of the nine-member Standing Committee, one seat is vacant because of the death of vice-premier Huang Ju . Two others are expected to be vacated by the anticipated retirement of Luo Gan , 72, the top official in charge of law and order, and Wu Guanzheng , 69, head of the anti-graft body. Vice-President Zeng Qinghong is also expected to step down because he has reached the informal retirement age of 68.
There has been growing pressure on Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference chairman Jia Qinglin , 67, and propaganda chief Li Changchun , 63, to step down as well. The two are widely seen as loyal supporters of former president Jiang Zemin . But the problem is that neither Mr Jia nor Mr Li has reached the retirement age, which is usually the best weapon to force a reluctant official to step down.
These days, 'intra-party democracy' can also be used. This phrase refers to the party's campaign to make senior officials more accountable and increase the transparency of the decision-making process. At this congress it will allow more than 2,000 party delegates to elect more members of the Central Committee in competitive elections. The new Central Committee members will then choose the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee members.
The party has already introduced limited competitive elections to choose Central Committee members by adding more candidates than positions. Many party officials have urged the leadership to increase the number of candidates for this congress.
If bigger competitive elections are encouraged, some officials may not be included in the Politburo or Politburo Standing Committee even though their names have already been agreed upon by various factions in advance.
There have been precedents.
At the 13th congress in 1987, Deng Liqun was not elected to the Central Committee because party delegates did not like his ultra-leftist views and he lost his powerful position on the party's secretariat.
With intra-party democracy in motion, it is not hard to imagine that China's fifth-generation leaders may be chosen directly through competitive elections in 2012.