Decorative plates and cups featuring images of Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen in front of a plate featuring late communist leader Mao Zedong (top L) at a souvenir store next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing on February 27, 2018.
China's propaganda machine kicked into overdrive on February 27 to defend the Communist Party's move to scrap term limits for President Xi Jinping as critics on social media again defied censorship attempts. The country has shocked many observers by proposing a constitutional amendment to end the two-term limit for presidents, giving Xi a clear path to rule the world's second largest economy for life. / AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER        (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
Xi Jinping's rise to power (2017)
01:53 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Steven Jiang is CNN’s Beijing senior producer. He has reported from China since 2001.

Beijing CNN  — 

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.

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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.

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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.

Current Politburo member

Despite the same family name, the party chief of prosperous Guangdong province has no relation to former President Hu Jintao.

Nevertheless, he is considered a member of the Hu Jintao faction, and his career even mirrors that of the elder Hu with lengthy stints both in Tibet (where the two had overlapping tenures) and in the Communist Youth League headquarters in Beijing.

Hu, 54, who was one of the youngest provincial leaders in China and rumored to be a potential Xi successor in the next decade, has seen his stardom fade somewhat under Xi – but may still just have enough political capital and backing to join the upper-most echelon of the party power structure.

Current Politburo member

Xi’s right-hand man occupies a position that’s often compared to the White House chief of staff.

The two men go way back when both were young party officials in neighboring rural counties in Hebei province in the early 1980s, according to their official biographies.

After serving several major provincial posts, including party chief in Guizhou province, Li, 67, was handpicked by Xi to run his office shortly before the Chinese leader took power in late 2012.

The usually low-profile Li was thrust into an unflattering media spotlight last summer when a columnist for Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post wrote about the huge wealth owned or managed by his family, insinuating official corruption amid an unrelenting anti-graft campaign spearheaded by Xi.

The newspaper has since pulled the story but many readers remain divided over whether the retraction was based on editorial standards or political pressure.

Current Politburo member

His political longevity is seen as a testament to his indispensable role as the so-called chief strategist of Zhongnanhai, the heavily guarded Chinese leadership compound in central Beijing that’s China’s equivalent of the White House.

Having served under three presidents (Jiang, Hu and now Xi), this professor turned politician is known for his talent in turning a Chinese leader’s ideas into methodical thoughts and theories.

As the head of the party’s central policy think tank, Wang, 62, mostly works away from the public eye but has increasingly been seen accompanying Xi on important overseas visits, prompting observers to call him a prominent “Xi convert.”

Trained as a political scientist, the Shanghai native taught at his alma mater, Fudan University in his hometown, for years and spent time in the US as an exchange scholar.

Former President Jiang moved Wang to the capital in 1995 and installed him in the policy think tank – and he’s never been far from the center of Chinese power ever since.

Current Politburo member

This Chinese vice premier is often seen a reform-minded straight shooter.

After working under two former premiers who were considered reformers, Wang, 62, rose through the ranks quickly in the Hu Jintao era to become the top official in Chongqing and then Guangdong.

Since joining the cabinet, Wang has presided over several rounds Sino-US talks on sticky economic and trade issues.

He was viewed as being close to Hu and was rumored to be a PBSC contender in 2012. Five years on, his patience, perseverance and, perhaps, Hu’s lingering influence may finally pay off.

Current Politburo member

This under-the-radar politician wields outsized power in the party.

As the head of the organization department, Zhao, 60, is in charge of personnel matters, overseeing the hiring and firing as well as promotion and demotion of most Chinese officials (who are also party members).

A native of the remote region of Qinghai, Zhao worked his way up in his home province for nearly three decades, before being appointed the party chief of Shaanxi province, Xi’s ancestral home.

He joined the Politburo and moved to Beijing five years ago when Xi took power at the last party congress.

Current PBSC member

China’s fearsome anti-corruption czar is long considered one of Xi’s most trusted lieutenants, responsible for cracking down on graft in the party – an issue that has become a lightning rod for public discontent.

In the past five years, Wang, 69, and his team have brought down more than a million officials, according to state media, including senior politicians who were often viewed as Xi’s rivals.

The former vice premier and Beijing mayor is also known to be an economic reformer and financial industry expert.

For Wang to stay on in the standing committee, though, his age is a big obstacle thanks to the party’s unwritten mandatory retirement age of 68.

Complicating matters further are accusations of massive corruption involving Wang and his family by Guo Wengui, a Chinese property tycoon in self-imposed exile in New York, where he has been waging a relentless online war of words against China’s top anti-graft official.

Despite the challenges, some China watchers still point to the prospect of Xi bending the party rule to accommodate Wang and thus setting a precedent for his own future power play beyond 2022.