Some leading cadres could be surprise omissions from China's top tier of power as President Xi Jinping prepares to reshuffle the leadership at the Communist Party congress in Beijing, according to reports.
The decision-making process in China is an arcane ritual that takes place behind closed doors, months before the 2,300 delegates gathered last week in the Great Hall of the People for this twice-a-decade gathering. There is growing speculation that Xi Jinping, whose position at the helm of the party was strengthened by a policy speech at the opening of the congress, will leave open the question of who will succeed him in 2022 when his tenure is traditionally supposed to end.
What is looking certain is that the standing committee of the political bureau (politburo), the top echelon of power in China, will be composed of key allies of Mr Xi but will not include some of the favourites tipped to rise to the top of the 89-million member organisation. The flow of information is tightly controlled within China, so gossip is carefully sifted through for possible scenarios.
Two Hong Kong newspapers, Mingpao and the South China Morning Post, citing senior party sources, said two leading candidates, Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua and Chongqing party chief Chen Miner, were unlikely to win promotion to the seven-member standing committee. Mr Xi and Li Keqiang, the premier, are members of the standing committee and are expected to stay on after the congress.
If Mr Xi does not nominate a successor, it will no doubt fuel rumours that he is planning to stay in power beyond his 10-year period in office. The headcount on the standing committee was reduced from nine when Mr Xi came to power in 2012, and there have been rumours it could be cut to five, but sources say that is now unlikely. Below the standing committee is the 25-member politburo and below that is the central committee, which has 370 members, including 205 full members with voting rights.
Mr Hu (54), who is party boss in Guangdong and who visited Ireland earlier this year at the head of a large trade delegation, is likely to be named a vice-premier at the next sitting of the country’s parliament in March. However, neither he nor Mr Chen (57) will be elevated to the standing committee, Mingpao reported, citing sources. Their age is significant, as the remaining candidates are all 60 or older, which means they will be past retirement age in 2022, when the next party congress takes place.
Another leading younger candidate, former Chongqing party boss Sun Zhengcai, was dramatically ousted in the run-up to the party congress and charged with corruption. This means that the standing committee would not include an heir to Mr Xi after his second term as general secretary of the Communist Party ends.
The South China Morning Post said that Mr Xi appeared to be in no hurry to decide on a successor, and was instead prepared to choose his successor from a number of candidates based on performance. "His priority and focus is how to make use of his second term to achieve his goals. A lot of things can happen in five years," the source told the paper.
The leadership transition process in China is a traditionally tortuous one, although things have become a lot less fraught since the era of Mao Zedong.