Through the fog of Byzantine horse-trading presumed to be taking place behind closed doors ahead of the imminent congress of the all-powerful Communist Party, one clear change in the nature of Chinese politics is emerging, say political analysts and insiders.
In stark contrast to the tradition of paramount leaders stamping their will and imposing their successors on the ruling party, China's top communists are now building coalitions and seeking compromises among themselves that some say could pave the way for a more open form of government.
"The era of strongman politics is over. No single leader can decide things anymore" says Li Cheng, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and longtime monitor of Chinese leadership struggles. "Today you need consensus, trade-offs, checks and balances."
Nowhere is this new style more evident than in the current maneuvering to succeed President Hu Jintao, who appears to be having difficulty anointing a protégé to take over for him.
Mr. Hu is not leaving yet. The 17th party Congress that opens Oct. 15 will almost certainly elect him to a second five-year term. Instead, attention is focused on which of the younger generation of rising leaders will make it onto the party's top body, the nine-member Standing Committee and thus position himself for a bid for the General Secretary's job in 2012.
More crowded near the top
When Hu himself was elevated to the Standing Committee in 1992, handpicked by outgoing party chief Deng Xiaoping at the age of 49, he was automatically destined to lead the country one day.
Next week, however, the consensus among close observers of top-level Chinese wrangling is that two young rivals will be promoted, one associated with Hu and another from a different party faction.
"With each generation, the top leader's power has got weaker and weaker," says Li Datong, former editor of a Communist Party youth newspaper. "Hu stands out from his colleagues only by Deng's blessing, and that is not enough to give him the authority to name his own successor.
"We won't see one prince emerging," Mr. Li predicts. "There will be several new members of the central group, and in three or four years we'll see who has earned the best reputation."
Whoever eventually comes out on top is unlikely to be a standard-bearer for radical change, though.
Ideological debate does surface from time to time: In recent months, both ageing Maoists urging a return to a planned economy and liberals calling for greater political opening have voiced their opinions in party journals, newspapers, and the Internet.
But "both the left and the right have been totally marginalized," says Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based political analyst. "They have no influence whatsoever. The center holds."
The key leaders who occupy that center differ over means, not ends, says Prof. Li Cheng, who identifies two groups playing factional politics in the corridors of power.
Populists and elitists
Hu leads the "populists," he says, who rally around the president's rhetoric of "building a harmonious society" and his stress on closing the growing wealth gap between rich and poor, boosting social spending, paying closer attention to peasants, and generally salving the wounds that wild capitalism has inflicted on Chinese society.
Li Keqiang, currently the party boss of Liaoning, an industrial province in northeastern China and a longtime acolyte of Hu's in the Communist Youth League, is the likely new entrant to the Standing Committee associated with this group.
Alongside the "populists" are the "elitists," says Professor Li, identified with former President Jiang Zemin's brand of breakneck economic growth and foreign investment that has favored China's prosperous coastal regions. Their coming man is Xi Jinping, currently head of the party in Shanghai and also tipped to make it into the Standing Committee next week.
Factional politics within the Communist Party are not new, but "today it is no longer a zero-sum vicious power struggle," says Li. Rather, he believes, the two groups recognize each other's strengths and that they need each other.
In each of the top six national leadership bodies such as the presidency and the Central Military Commission, he points out, the top two positions are shared between members of the two power groups. "I don't think either faction will win outright," he predicts.
This delicate balance marks "a change from dictatorship to democracy. This is the starting point for inner party democracy" believes Li Datong, the former editor, as the party builds on its efforts to reflect Chinese society more broadly through the inclusion of capitalist entrepreneurs.
"The foundation for legitimacy has changed," he argues. "It used to be the previous leader's nomination, and now only votes can change anything."
So far, the party has taken only the most hesitant steps in this direction. Next week, for example, the 2,217 delegates will be presented 230 candidates for the 200 Central Committee posts, allowing them a small measure of choice in selecting the people who will elect the Standing Committee.
Even Li Datong's optimism is hedged. The opportunity to choose China's leaders, he notes, will still be limited to members of the Communist Party.
"The bottom line is that the Communist Party's governing authority, and single party rule, must not be endangered," he says. "The goal of inner party democracy is to keep Communist Party rule intact."