At its 18th Party Congress Nov. 8, China's Communist Party will choose the nine men (and they will almost certainly all be men) who will lead the nation for the next decade. Infighting is fierce and out of view, and the identities of the winners will be top secret until they walk onstage at the Great Hall of the People. Here are five names to watch for:
Xi Jinping: 'the next leader'
Currently the vice president, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and head of the party school, Xi Jinping looks like a shoo-in to take over from President Hu Jintao as head of the party this autumn and as China's president early next year.
An ebullient, affable man with a reputation for living modestly, Mr. Xi made his name running two of the economic powerhouse provinces on China's prosperous east coast, suggesting he is sympathetic to more free-market reform.
The son of a former deputy premier, Xi is a "princeling" and a member of what is known as the elitist faction within the Communist Party. But the six years he spent working in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution are said to have given him a better understanding of poor people's concerns.
He has made fewer enemies on his way up than have many ambitious rivals, and so he is acceptable to more of his peers and superiors. He will only be "first among equals" on the Standing Committee of the party's Politburo, however, and is expected to spend his first few years in power consolidating his position before launching any new policy initiatives.
Li Keqiang: leader of 'the populists'
The only other expected holdover from the current Standing Committee, Li Keqiang comes from a less-privileged background than Vice President Xi Jinping. Mr. Li is identified as a leader of the "populist" faction who has evinced interest in social issues such as affordable housing and health care, as well as alternative energy and responding to climate change.
He is tipped to take over from Wen Jiabao as prime minister, a job that would put him in charge of the country's economy.
Li came to prominence as party chief in the rust belt province of Liaoning, in China's hardscrabble Northeast, having worked his way up in the Communist Youth League, the power base of current President Hu Jintao, whose protégé he is.
Li has been a highflier since he won a place at the prestigious Peking University Law School in 1977, when universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. His friends there included a number of student activists who were later jailed or exiled for their role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Li speaks English, unusual for a Chinese leader.
Wang Qishan: 'media friendly'
Currently a deputy premier in charge of finance and trade, Wang Qishan comes from a banking background. He made friends with former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who called him "decisive and inquisitive" with "a wicked sense of humor."
Mr. Wang earned his reputation as a coolheaded can-do leader as mayor of Beijing in 2003 after a botched government coverup of the SARS outbreak. His frankness impressed both ordinary Beijingers and foreign officials. He enhanced his image of competence when he successfully managed the biggest debt restructuring in China's history.
As mayor of Beijing, Wang was in charge of overall preparations in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, which were seen as China's "coming out party" for the world and widely praised as an enormous success.
Wang is among the most media-friendly of China's leaders. He seemed at ease during a long interview with PBS's Charlie Rose last year, an appearance few of his peers would have dared to make.
Wang Yang: 'the rarity'
Wang Yang never finished high school and went to work in a factory at age 17 to help his widowed mother. But he won praise for his low-key efficiency as he moved up the Communist Party ladder in a series of local, provincial, and then national posts.
Mr. Wang is party chief in Guangdong, the "workshop of the world" province that has led China's economic boom over the past three decades, one of the top regional leadership posts.
There, he sought to replace sweatshops with high-end, value-added industries; advocated "thought emancipation"; ordered the provincial capital to make its budget public; and generally acted as an open-minded economic and political reformer.
While the man once seen as his main rival, Bo Xilai, has suddenly fallen from political grace, Wang passed his most recent test with flying colors in December 2011. After 13 days of a tense standoff between the authorities and the villagers of Wukan, in Guangdong Province, who had thrown their corrupt party officials out of the village, Wang refrained from using force to end the crisis and instead defused it by acknowledging that the villagers might have a case.
Liu Yandong: 'the dark horse'
If the Communist Party decides to make history, and to soften the leadership's image, it could pick Liu Yandong as the first woman member of the Standing Committee.
She is a long shot, an outside contender, but one whose strength lies in her ties to all the different party factions that have a say in shaping the final leadership lineup.
Ms. Liu is currently the only woman on the 25-member Politburo; she is responsible for health, education, culture, and sports. She's the daughter of a former vice minister of Agriculture, making her a princeling, like Xi Jinping. She also served in the Communist Youth League, President Hu Jintao's power base.
She has never been a provincial governor, a key steppingstone for most rising politicians, and her age – 66 – might also count against her.
Still, a skirt suit and pearls, Liu's typical outfit, would make a change from the dark suits and dull ties that have hitherto been the uniform of the Standing Committee.