Former party leader Jiang Zemin's influence may eclipse that of current general secretary Hu Jintao in the next decade as the new mainland leadership line-up begins to take shape.
The Communist Party will unveil its once-in-a-decade reshuffle at its 18th national congress in a few weeks. While it is never publicly discussed, the country's political elite has spent the better part of the year in frenzied mud-slinging, horse-trading, alliance-building and lobbying.
Now the dust is finally starting to settle, sources say. Apart from a few finishing touches, the party is ready to wheel out a new team of top decision-makers, who will face the unenviable task of steering the world's second-largest economy onto a more sustainable path.
The number of Politburo Standing Committee members will be reduced from nine to seven, sources said, in a move designed to make the highest decision-making body more efficient, less bogged down by factional interests and more inclined to push through bolder reforms.
The line-up is now almost certain. Immediately after the downfall of political heavyweight and "princeling" Bo Xilai , many analysts saw it as a victory for Hu's camp. But the balance of power now looks to be tilting more towards Jiang's side. The mercurial nature of mainland politics, however, means that nothing is set in stone.
Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang , already Politburo Standing Committee members, will succeed Hu, also the state president, and Premier Wen Jiabao respectively.Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng , a veteran princeling - or son of a party elder - known for his strong connections and adroit handling of complex relationships, is tipped to take over from Wu Bangguo as Jiang's trusted ally Zhang Dejiang , who was parachuted into Chongqing in the aftermath of Bo's fall, will head the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, replacing Jia Qinglin , another trusted friend of Jiang's.
Zhang, a former Guangdong party boss, is remembered by most Hongkongers for being very conservative. He is dubbed "Mr Reliable" in mainland politics.
Li Yuanchao , head of the powerful Organisation Department, will be vice-president, putting him in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs.
Vice-Premier Wang Qishan , whose financial and economic expertise is indispensible, will take up the sixth position.
That leaves the final seat to either Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang , Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli or propaganda chief Liu Yunshan .
Contrary to some overseas media speculation, Zhang is most likely to emerge as the winner. Wang, 57, will have to wait for the next reshuffle. Relatively young among top leaders, Wang's age has affected his chances.
A Beijing-based media source said Wang, if made a member of the Politburo Standing Committee this year, would almost certainly stay in the position until 2027.
Hui Ching - a Hong Kong-based analyst - agreed. "Although Wang is charismatic and liked by many, he is controversial, too, in some aspects," he said. "His age and his squabbling with Bo Xilai over China's development philosophy made him a less likely candidate. Zhang Gaoli, on the other hand, is acceptable to all sides."
This line-up will mean that Hu can only count on Li Keqiang as a dependable ally in the new power core. Wang, Yu, Zhang Dejiang and Zhang Gaoli are all closely linked to Jiang, while Li Yuanchao easily crosses factional lines.
Unlike Jiang, Hu is going to retire from the power centre completely. He is expected to give up control of the military, instead of holding on to the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission for another two years, as his predecessor did.
Hu, always a believer in the importance of the party's institutional integrity, wants to establish a good precedent. The scandal surrounding his trusted aide Ling Jihua has also left him exhausted - Ling's son was killed when his Ferrari crashed in Beijing in March. Two women who were also in the car were seriously injured.