China's ruling elite meet at the 18th Communist Party National Congress this year to reveal new members of the Politburo Standing Committee. At least five places are up for grabs on the team to lead China for the next 10 years. With leading analyst Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, CNN profiles the top contenders.
The 59-year-old presumptive next leader of China is a so-called "princeling," the son or daughter of a revolutionary veteran. Born in Fuping County, Shaanxi Province, Xi was sent to work on an agricultural commune before being accepted into the prestigious Tsinghua University in 1975.
Xi studied chemical engineering and went on to serve as a personal secretary to the then minister of defense Geng Biao. His early political career took him from his native province to Hebei and later Fujian, where he served as vice governor in 1999, before being promoted to governor a year later.
In 2002, Xi took up senior government and Party positions in Zhejiang, a province on the country's southeast coast. He entered the Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2007 and in 2008 became the country's vice president. In 2010 he was also promoted to vice chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission and China's Central Military Commission. He's also president of the Central Party School.
Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, was a top Communist who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. After his release, Xi senior was elected to the Politburo and served as vice premier. During his time in power, he supported economic liberalization and was instrumental in creating China's Special Economic Zones. Xi is married to Peng Liyuan, a famous Chinese folk singer and his second wife. They have one daughter, Xi Mingze, who is reported to be studying at Harvard University.
Xi is considered to be a protégé of former Chinese leaders President Jiang Zemin and Vice President Zeng Qinghong.
Xi has long been known for his market-friendly approach to economic development," said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in a report on China's Top Future Leaders to Watch. "Yet he has also displayed strong support for 'big companies,' especially China's flagship state-owned enterprises," Li added.
"Xi's experience in the military -- serving as a personal assistant to the minister of defense early in his career -- also makes him stand out among his peers."
Unless there's a major upset, China's 57-year-old Vice Premier Li Keqiang looks set to replace Premier Wen Jiabao in March 2013, when the reshuffle of government posts is formalized. Li is already the seventh-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee after rising through the Communist Youth League, a training ground for party leaders.
Born in Dingyuan County, Li was in his late teens when he spent four years doing manual labor with the Dongling Production Brigade in his native Anhui Province. In 1978, he went to Peking University, where he graduated with degrees in law and economics.
In the 1980s and '90s, Li served as secretary-general of the All-China Students Federation, then held party positions in the Communist Youth League Central Committee. In 1999, he was promoted to governor of Henan Province and later became chairman of the Standing Committee of the Henan's Provincial People's Congress.
From there, he moved to Liaoning before being made a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007. Li is considered a core member of President Hu Jintao's "Tuanpai faction," whose ties originate with the Communist Youth League.
Li is one of the non-princelings vying for a place at the top of China's political hierarchy. According to Brookings, he comes from a midlevel official family; his father was a county-level cadre. Li's wife, Cheng Hong, is a professor of English language and literature at Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, according to reports, which also suggest they have one daughter who is studying in the United States.
"Based on his previous work and the populist policy agenda he shares with his mentor Hu Jintao, Li's hot-button policy issues will include increasing employment, offering more affordable housing, providing basic health care, balancing regional development and promoting innovation in clean energy technology," according to Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution.
Zhang Dejiang was vice premier of China's State Council until he was suddenly diverted to replace disgraced party chief Bo Xilai as leader of Chongqing in March 2012.
Born in Tai'an, Liaoning province, 65-year-old Zhang was in his early 20s when he was sent to the countryside to work at the Luozigou Commune in Wangqing County, Jilin Province.
In the early 1970s, Zhang worked in the county propaganda department before studying Korean at Yanbian University. He served as secretary of the local Communist Youth League branch in Liaoning before crossing the border to North Korea to study economics at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.
In the '80s, Zhang returned to Yanbian, where he held senior positions in the Communist Party before taking a role as the vice minister of civil affairs. Senior party positions followed in Jilin until Zhang moved south to Zhejiang to become secretary of the CPC's Provincial Committee.
In 2002, he entered the Politburo of the CPC Central Committee and become secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Committee. Zhang's political record is alleged to have been blemished by incidents while in Guangdong, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which claimed he was implicated in efforts to conceal the SARS epidemic. Railways were also under his portfolio during the public outrage that followed the collision of two high-speed trains in July 2011.
Zhang is a princeling, the son of Zhang Zhiyi, a former PLA major general who is reported to have served as deputy commander of the Artillery Force in the Guangzhou Military Region. Zhang's wife, Xin Shusen, has a long history of holding senior positions at the China Construction Bank and is also said to be a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, according to the Brookings Institution. Zhang is considered a protégé of former leader Jiang Zemin.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said Zhang's sudden appointment to Chongqing may indicate that he won't be on the short list for the Politburo Standing Committee. If he is, Brookings expert Cheng Li said he may "continue to promote policies in favor of the development of state-owned enterprises, state monopoly and so-called indigenous innovation (economic protectionism)."
The current head of the Organization Department of the Communist Party, Li Yuanchao is considered a strong contender for entry into the Politburo Standing Committee, the small team of men steering China's future policy.
Another princeling, 62-year-old Li is the son of Li Gancheng, a former vice mayor of Shanghai. Born in 1950 in Lianshui, Jiangsu province, Li was sent to work on a farm in Dafeng County for four years before studying mathematics at Shanghai Normal University and becoming a middle school teacher.
Li taught at two schools in Shanghai -- Nanchang Middle School and Luwan District Sparetime Vocational School -- before returning to study at Fudan University, where he majored in mathematics. He also holds a doctoral degree in law from the Central Party School and spent time studying public administration at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Li's political career took off with senior positions in the Chinese Communist Youth League in Shanghai. He later worked at the Information of the State Council and General Office of Foreign Publicity of the CCP Central Committee, before taking the role of vice minister of the Ministry of Culture. Li also occupied top party positions in Jiangsu Province.
As the current head of the Organization Department, Li wields a lot of power and influence in the promotion and demotion of party and government officials nationwide. He, too, is considered a member of Hu's "Tuanpai faction."
Li is married to Gao Jianjin, a professor of music at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, according to the Brookings Institution. They have one son, Li Haijin, who is said to have worked as sales person in drug companies in the United States and in Switzerland. He is now studying at Yale University.
"His unusual combination of identities -- a Shanghai-originated leader who has not been associated with the so-called Shanghai Gang, a princeling who advanced his career primarily from the CCYL, and an enthusiastic supporter of Hu-Wen's macroeconomic control policy who recently ran a fast-growing coastal province -- may help him gain broader support in the leadership," said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution. "Li is one of the few fifth-generation leaders who have called for serious political reforms, inner-party democracy, and tougher measures to deal with official corruption."
Described by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as "decisive and inquisitive" and possessing a "wicked sense of humor," Wang Qishan currently serves as the vice premier in charge of economic, energy and financial affairs under Premier Wen Jiabao.
Born in 1948 in Tianjin, Wang was sent to work at the Fengzhuang People's Commune in Yan'an County, Shaanxi Province, before taking a job at the Shaanxi Provincial Museum.
After graduating from Northwest University with a degree in history, Wang returned to the museum before embarking on his ascent of China's political ladder. He held top positions at the Rural Development Research Center under the State Council in the '80s before joining the China Rural Trust and Investment Corporation.
Wang later joined the People's Bank of China and China Construction Bank before filling senior party roles in Guangdong and then Hainan. In 2004, he became mayor of Beijing, and as executive chairman for the Beijing Organizing Committee, played a key role in pulling together the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Wang is married to Yao Mingshan, whom he met in Yan'an in 1969 when both were sent to work in the countryside, according to the Brookings Institution. Yao's father is Yao Yilin, a former Politburo Standing Committee member and vice premier. Wang is thought to have strong ties to former President Jiang Zemin who counted Yao Yilin among his supporters in the Politburo Standing Committee.
"His widely known nickname in China is 'the chief of the fire brigade.' The Chinese public regard Wang as a leader who is capable and trustworthy during times of emergency or crisis," said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution.
"Based on his previous leadership experiences and policy initiatives, Wang will most likely promote the development of foreign investment and trade, the liberalization of China's financial system, and tax-revenue reforms, which are crucial for central-local economic relations."
Yu Zhengsheng has a remarkable family background that includes a connection to the former wife of Mao Zedong and a brother who dramatically defected to the United States in the mid-'80s.
He also occupies one of the top jobs in Chinese politics and is considered a strong contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, although analysts say his age may work against him.
Born in 1945, Yu majored in ballistic missile automatic control at the Harbin Military Engineering Institute before working as technician in radio factories in Hebei Province. In the late 1970s, Yu started working his way up the promotion scale in the Fourth Ministry of Machine-Building Industry and later joined the Ministry of Electronics Industry.
He spent some time working as the president, vice chairman and member of the Leading Party Members' Group of the China Welfare Fund for the Handicapped before taking a political position in Shandong Province.
Yu rose to become mayor of Qingdao, a major city in eastern Shandong, before being appointed minister of construction in 1997. As the current CPC party chief in Shanghai, a position he took in 2007, Yu presides over China's largest city for finance and business.
Yu is also a princeling whose father, Huang Jing (Yu Qiwei), a former mayor of Tianjin, was the first husband of Jiang Qing, a famous actress who later married Mao Zedong and was vilified for her role in the Cultural Revolution. Sensationally, Yu's brother -- Yu Qiangsheng -- was a top Chinese intelligence officer who caused a diplomatic storm when he defected to the United States in 1985.
Yu is considered a protégé of former leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Deng's son, Deng Pufang, ran the China Welfare Fund for the handicapped where Yu worked in the '80s. Yu also worked under Jiang, who was once head of the Ministry of Electronics Industry. Yu is married to Zhang Zhikai, the daughter of Zhang Zhenhuan, a former major general with the PLA.
"Based on his previous leadership experiences and recent public speeches, Yu's hot-button policy issues may include the promotion of the private sector, urban development, legal development and social reform to promote confidence-building and mutual trust in society," said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution.
A one-time factory hand at a food processing plant in Anhui Province, Wang Yang is a non-princeling contender for the Politburo's Standing Committee.
As party chief of Guangdong province, Wang presides over a population of 100 million, including millions who have moved to the region to share in its recent economic growth.
The 57-year-old is seen as open-minded and unorthodox, especially after negotiating a peaceful resolution to unrest in the fishing village of Wukan in 2011. Wang bowed to villagers' demands, returned some contested land and allowed local democratic elections to be held for the first time in China. The unusual move earned Wang a place on TIME's 2012 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Born in 1955, Wang graduated from the University of Science and Technology with a master's degree in engineering. He started his career in Anhui Province, where he later served as mayor of Tongling City from 1988.
In the 1990s, Wang served as executive vice governor of the province before he joined the central government, where he became vice minister of the National Development and Reform Commission and then deputy secretary-general of the State Council. Between 2005 and 2007, Wang served as party chief in Chongqing, a role he passed to the now disgraced politician Bo Xilai.
According to the Brookings Institution, Wang was born into a humble family. As the eldest child, Wang is said to have started work at age 17 to help support the family after his father's death. His political talent was spotted early when he became mayor of Tongling while in his early thirties.
Wang is said to have developed "a very unusual" rivalry with disgraced politician Bo, centered on their models of provincial reform, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
However, Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution said Bo's removal does not necessarily give Wang a clear shot at the leadership. "Bo's downfall does not necessarily mean an absolute victory for Wang. Other princelings now believe Wang's power and influence will expand very quickly, and thus they may create barriers to his quick advancement to the PSC, the pinnacle of power," he said.
The only female member of the Politburo, Liu Yandong is considered a possible contender for entry to the Standing Committee. If she succeeds, she'll be in the first woman to hold a top position in the Chinese leadership.
Born in 1945 in Jiangsu Province, Liu graduated from Tsinghua University in the late 1960s with a degree in chemical engineering. She also holds a master's degree in sociology and a doctoral degree in law from two other universities.
After working at a chemical plant in Hebei Province, Liu spent most of the 1970s working at the Beijing Chemical Experiment Plant, where she filled senior party roles.
In the early '80s, Liu became a cadre in the Organization Department of the CCP Committee before joining the All-China Youth Foundation, which she chaired.
Liu joined the United Front Work Department in the early '90s and it wasn't long before she took the top position, where she remains.
A princeling, Liu is the daughter of Liu Ruilong, the former vice minister of agriculture. She is also said to have strong family ties with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. According to the Brookings Institution, Liu's father introduced Jiang's adoptive father to the Communist movement in 1928. Liu is said to be a close supporter of President Hu Jintao, who she met four decades ago while a political councilor at Tsinghua University, according to the U.S. think tank.
"(Liu) is often seen as liberal minded, and may call for the greater political participation of other parties, interest groups, and NGOs in China's political process," said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution. "In recent years, Liu has advocated for the promotion of China's cultural exchanges overseas."
One of seven siblings born to a poor farming family in 1963, Hu Chunhua is considered an outside chance for entry to the Politburo Standing Committee because of his strong ties to his mentor, President Hu Jintao.
The two were said to have met in Tibet, where the younger Hu worked as a clerk at the Organization Department in the CCP Committee of Tibet after graduating from Peking University with a degree in Chinese literature.
Hu worked his way up the political hierarchy as a member of the Chinese Communist Youth League in Tibet. He then served at the CCYL National Committee and China's Youth Federation in Beijing, before returning to Tibet, where he filled the role of deputy party secretary and executive vice governor.
In 2009, Hu was promoted to governor of Hebei Province and is currently the Communist Party Secretary for Inner Mongolia.
According to the Brookings Institution, Hu is considered a "carbon copy of Hu Jintao." "Both come from humble family backgrounds, both were student leaders in their college years, both advanced their political careers primarily through the CCYL, both worked in arduous work environments such as Tibet, both served as provincial party secretaries at a relatively young age and both have low-profile personalities," the think tank said. Hu was married in Tibet and has one daughter.
According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hu is considered by many to be a front-runner to succeed Xi Jinping as the party leader and president in 2022. However, it said competition from more senior party members and factional pressure may put him in line for a "less dramatic" promotion to the full Politburo.
The head of China's Propaganda Department is considered one to watch as the country identifies its future leaders.
Born in 1947 in Xinzhou, Shanxi Province, Liu Yunshan worked as a teacher in Inner Mongolia, before being sent to do manual labor in a rural commune in Sobugai People's Commune during the Cultural Revolution.
After leaving the commune, Liu spent a number of years in Inner Mongolia, working as a journalist and in public relations before taking a party position with the Communist Youth League Committee in the autonomous region.
In the early '90s, Liu moved to Beijing to become deputy director of the CCP Propaganda Department, where he was later promoted to director.
Liu has close ties with Hu Jintao, formed when both of them worked at the CYL, according to research by the Brookings Institution. Liu's son, Liu Lefei, heads CITIC Private Equity Funds Management and was last year named by Fortune Magazine as one of the 25 most powerful business people in Asia. The young Liu is married to Jia Liqing, the daughter of Jia Chunwang, the former chief of state security, according to research from the Brookings Institution.
"The possible reduction of the number of PSC seats from nine to seven may undermine Liu's chance for promotion," said Brookings' China expert Cheng Li. However, a report form the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said his prior experience makes him a "natural candidate" to succeed Li Changchun as head of the "Propaganda and Ideology" policy portfolio.
Born in 1946, in Jinjiang City, Fujian province, Zhang Gaoli is currently party secretary of Tianjin, a bustling city of around 13 million people and one of China's four municipalities.
Zhang started his career in the oil industry, at the Guangdong Maoming Petroleum Company, after studying planning and statistics at Xiamen University.
He spent around 12 years working his way up the political ladder in Guangdong Province, including a stint as party secretary in the special economic zone of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.
In 2001, Zhang became governor and later party secretary of Shandong Province before moving to Tianjin in 2007.
Believed to be a protégé of former President Jiang Zemin, Zhang is also thought to have received support in his latter career from former Vice President Zeng Qinghong. According to the Brookings Institution, Zhang married a former university classmate with whom he has one daughter who is married to a wealthy Hong Kong businessman.
Zhang's "hot-button" issues remain unknown due to his "low-profile" approach to career advancement, according to Brookings' expert Cheng Li. However, "in general, Zhang has been known for his pro-market economic policy orientation, especially evident in his leadership tenure in Shenzhen," he said.