Editor’s Note: Steven Jiang is CNN’s Beijing senior producer. He has reported from China since 2001.
In the world’s most populous nation, seven men sit atop 1.4 billion people. They are members of the ruling Communists’ Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the top decision-making body in a one-party political system.
A new lineup for the all-powerful committee will be unveiled Wednesday at the end of the Communist Party National Congress, held twice a decade with an expected major reshuffle of leadership.
Chinese politics today is usually as opaque as it was during the Mao years. Tea leaf-reading analysts can’t agree if the PBSC will remain a seven-member body.
Some predict a nine-member standing committee (not unprecedented), while others think it may be eliminated in favor of President Xi Jinping presiding over a 25-member Politburo (the ruling body just one notch below PBSC).
Still, most observers lean toward a scenario of the current setup staying intact.
In the race for one of the most coveted party posts, there are sure bets – as well as dark horses.
Here are some of the contenders for the new PBSC, which will rule China for the next five years and beyond.
Current PBSC member
China’s President, whose real power is rooted in his position as the head of the nearly 90-million strong Communist Party and the party-controlled military, is here to stay.
Since he took over the party at its last National Congress in 2012, Xi, 64, has increasingly tightened his grip over the vast country, chairing numerous super-commissions that he created to take charge of both domestic and foreign policies.
Although the Chinese constitution limits the president to two five-year terms, no comparable restriction exists for the party chief.
Already hailed as the most powerful – and hardline – Chinese leader in decades, Xi will be re-elected as the party’s head for another five years, with many observers mentioning the growing possibility of him staying beyond 2022.
For now, Xi is expected to emerge stronger than ever out of the party congress – stuffing the Politburo, including the PBSC, with his protégés and loyalists – just in time to greet visiting US President Donald Trump in November.
Current PBSC member
The Chinese premier has seen his political fortune fall – and then rebound under Xi.
China’s No. 2 leader, who runs the day-to-day operations of the government, is technically in charge of the world’s second-largest economy but has long been overshadowed by his dominant and omnipresent boss.
A trained economist, Li, 62, is often considered a reformer and belonging to the so-called Communist Youth League faction under the patronage of Xi’s predecessor, former President Hu Jintao.
Once rumored to be on his way out, Li seems to have proven his loyalty to Xi and regained his visibility in state media in recent months – making his stay in the PBSC all but certain.
Not a current Politburo or PBSC member
This rising political star is dubbed a member of the so-called Zhijiang New Army, a group of Xi protégés dating to the days when he was the party chief of the eastern province of Zhejiang in the 2000s (with “Zhijiang New Talk” being a newspaper column that Chen reportedly created and Xi frequently contributed to).
Chen, a Zhejiang native, worked alongside Xi in the province for years.
The 57-year-old politician also served as the top official in the poor southwestern province of Guizhou. In July, he was named the party chief of Chongqing – a provincial-level city – after the surprising downfall of Sun Zhengcai, who was close to Xi’s predecessor and once considered a shoo-in for the new PBSC.
If Chen – viewed by some observers as a future premier – makes the cut, it would be a great leap forward for the relatively young politician – who isn’t even in the current Politburo – and another testament to Xi’s consolidation of power.
Current Politburo member
The Shanghai party chief is the ultimate survivor in Chinese politics, having served under multiple bosses from rival factions, including Xi himself.
Born and raised in China’s largest city, Han, 63, was a longtime Shanghai mayor who has largely focused his career on growing the city’s economy and restoring its former glory as a global financial center.
Despite being frequently listed as a member of the so-called Shanghai clique, headed by former President Jiang Zemin, Han seems to have won the trust of Xi during the short period of seven months that the two men worked together in the city.
Occasionally mentioned as a potential premier, Han is likely to become a PBSC member but whether his portfolio would include the economy remains an open question.