It has been hailed by China's state media as "the most important meeting in the world in terms of its impact on the future," and not without reason. Yet the rest of us will find out what happens at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China only when it's over.
On Thursday, about 2,270 delegates from across China will enter the colonnaded Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. After a secretive week (or more) of deliberation, a group of men in dark suits (although there could be one woman) will emerge and walk in a phalanx down a red carpet. Only then – by analyzing who stands where in the official photograph of the occasion – will the world find out who is to run this emerging superpower for the coming decade.
Not all the winners will come as a surprise: The man in the middle of the photo will be Xi Jinping, the current Vice-President, who has been chosen to succeed Hu Jintao as China's paramount leader. Unless there's a catastrophe, Mr. Xi will be made secretary-general of the Communist Party. He is then expected to become president next spring, and head of the Central Military Commission some time after that.
To his right will almost certainly be Li Keqiang. Tapped to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao as head of the country's government, he is the only other member of the nine-man Standing Committee of the Politburo, China's supreme decision-making body, not scheduled to retire this year.
But who else will be there? At least nine others are clearly in the running. However, with the congress just days away, even senior government officials profess not to know whether the Standing Committee will stay the same size – it may shrink to seven members – let alone who will get the nod.
As for what the candidates would do if chosen, more is known about their allegiances than the policies they advocate. Chief among the various factions are the "princelings" (sons and daughters of Communist heroes who feel entitled to rule), political reformers (many of whom came up through the Communist Youth League under Mr. Hu), and those loyal to previous paramount leader Jiang Zemin.
Which faction, and which ideas, gain the upper hand may have a remarkable impact on the affairs of the nation and, given China's growing clout, the rest of the world.
XI JINPING, 59
Background: Considered a princeling as the son of revered revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, joined the CYL at 18 and studied chemical engineering at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University. Served as governor of coastal Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, and briefly as Communist Party chief in Shanghai before being promoted to the Standing Committee in 2007.
Current posts: First secretary of the Communist Party, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, vice-president of the People's Republic of China
Politics: Considered close to both Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang, he appears to have risen by being a bridge between the rival factions. But China-watchers wonder whether he also embraces the politics of his father, a reformer who played a leading role in China's economic transformation in the early 1980s (and one of few senior leaders to condemn the use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989).
LI KEQIANG, 57
Background: Born in Anhui province, rose through the CYL, studied law at Beijing University and has been tabbed for a leading role since 1998 when, at 43, he landed the top job in Henan to become China's youngest provincial governor. As well, he has served as Communist Party chief in northeastern Liaoning province.
Current post: First-vice premier
Politics: A protégé of Mr. Hu, he was his fellow Anhui native's chosen successor until Mr. Hu reportedly was forced to compromise with Mr. Jiang's conservatives and accept Mr. Xi. He has repeatedly called the current system "unbalanced" and spoken forcefully about the need for further economic reform.
WANG QISHAN, 63
Background: Best known as Beijing's mayor, during the 2003 SARS crisis and then the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.
Current posts: Vice-premier and representative to the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue
Politics: Seen as a princeling because his father-in-law, Yao Yilin, was vice-premier, he is considered a success as Beijing's mayor because the Olympics were, but city residents have mixed feelings – Mr. Yao was in office during the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
LI YUANCHAO, 61
Background: Powerful figure within the Communist Party; has a PhD in economics from Beijing University; is a former party boss in his native Jiangsu province.
Current position: Head of the Organization Department, which controls appointments large and small within the Communist Party, from provincial governors to newspaper editors
Politics: Seen as close to Mr. Hu, he helped the President expand the influence of the CYL but has princeling ties (his father was vice-mayor of Shanghai in the 1960s) that make him a potential a bridge between factions on the next Standing Committee.
YU ZHENGSHENG, 67
Background: A graduate of the Military Engineering Institute in the northeastern city of Harbin, rose through the party ranks in the coastal city of Qingdao, served as construction minister in Beijing, and then party secretary in Hubei province.
Current post: Since 2007, Communist Party chief in Shanghai
Politics: Another princeling, he is seen as close to Mr. Jiang (also a former Shanghai party boss), but will serve just one term (the party's unofficial retirement age is 68). His rise was slowed by the 1985 defection of his older brother, a senior intelligence officer, to the United States.
ZHANG DEJIANG, 66
Background: New standard-bearer for the left wing, studied economics at Kim Il-sung university in North Korea, often takes on difficult assignments requiring a firm hand (being the party's "iron-fisted enforcer" according to the South China Morning Post).
Current post: Vice-premier and party chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing since the murder-and-corruption scandal that felled predecessor Bo Xilai (once a near certainty to make the committee) this year.
Politics: Another one-term appointment, he is considered a princeling (his father was a general in the People's Liberation Army) and is particularly close to Mr. Jiang. Criticized while governor of Guangdong in 2003 for trying to suppress news of the SARS crisis, he also made waves in Chongqing by forcing civil servants who had served Mr. Bo pledge loyalty to him.
LIU YUNSHAN, 65
Background: Former teacher from Shanxi province; built his career in Inner Mongolia and spent seven years as a reporter at the official Xinhua news agency before rising to the Propaganda Department. Recently, he has overseen the international expansion of CCTV television and the China Daily newspaper.
Current post: Director of the Propaganda Department
Politics: Having risen through
the CYL, he is seen as an ally of Mr. Hu, but also was close to Mr. Bo, the fallen leftist, and, as an opponent of political reform,
has led government efforts to control conversations on the Internet.
WANG YANG, 57
Background: Like Mr. Hu, a native of Anhui who came up in the CYL; studied political economics and was Chongqing party boss ahead of Mr. Bo before moving to Guangdong.
Current post: Communist Party chief for Guangdong province
Politics: Mr. Wang is considered the leading reform candidate – the ideological heir to Premier Wen Jiabao. Under his rule, Guangdong has developed the freest media in China and even some independent (if closely monitored) non-governmental organizations. He surprised many with his laissez-faire handling of last year's village uprising in Wukan, which saw protesters demand – and get – the right to elect local leaders. Given his age, he could still be a contender in five years if passed over this time.
ZHANG GAOLI, 66
Background: Trained economist born in coastal Fujian province; former party secretary for the southern city of Shenzhen and northeastern Shandong province.
Current position: Communist Party chief for Tianjin (a metropolis near Beijing)
Politics: He rarely says anything in public, so Mr. Zhang is hard to decipher. Considered close to the incoming leader (he frequently consulted Mr. Xi's father while in Shenzhen), he is thought to be backed by the Jiang faction, keen to block the rise of Wang Yang.
LIU YANDONG, 66
Background: The only woman among the 25 members of the Politburo; former chemistry major from Beijing's Tsinghua University who once headed the United Front Work Department, which strives to improve the party's image abroad.
Current post: State councillor
Politics: A close ally of Mr. Hu, she has focused on building China's ramshackle public health and education systems while in the Politburo. If elevated, she would end a Standing Committee tradition as an exclusive boys club that began with the creation of the Communist Party of China.
HU CHUNHUA, 49
Background: A native of Hubei and perhaps the party's fastest-rising star; at 16, finished first in the national university-entrance exam and, in 2008, became China's youngest provincial governor in Hubei. Has also spent significant time in Tibet.
Current post: Communist Party chief for Inner Mongolia
Politics: Dubbed "Little Hu" for his link to the President, he is an extreme long shot for the Standing Committee,but will likely join the Politburo, and be on track for promotion in 2017 and maybe even the presidency in 2022.
Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's Beijing correspondent.