China's elite have begun their game of thrones — here are some of the potential winners

Key Points
  • Five of the seven members of China's most powerful ruling body are due to retire in a massive leadership change that happens twice a decade
  • For President Xi Jinping, the changeover is an opportunity to install loyalists and shore up his legacy
  • The Chinese leadership composition could have global implications as the world's second-largest economy continues to reform

As Beijing's sweltering summer rolls into August, China's political elite usually retreats seaside to deliberate the hottest topic of all: the future of the ruling Communist Party.

The highly secretive confab is in Beidaihe, a beach resort roughly 175 miles east of Beijing along the Bohai Sea, and it's an annual ritual from the days of former Chairman Mao Zedong. This year, the stakes are higher than ever: Five of the seven members of the nation's most powerful ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, are due to retire in a massive leadership change that happens twice a decade.

Chinese leaders, second row from left, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and others.
Greg Baker | AFP | Getty Images

For President Xi Jinping, this is an opportunity to install loyalists and shore up his legacy. Who gets promoted and who doesn't could have a major global impact, as the world's second-largest economy posts its slowest pace of growth in a quarter of a century.

"Leadership change is always important in every country ... but in China, relatively speaking, for the outside world, it's still quite mysterious," said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. "The impact of China's importance and influence is on the rise — it's already become a world leader ... so therefore, we do need to pay attention."

The lineup will be unveiled at China's 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, which is set for some time in the fall although its dates are not yet announced. The bargaining could stretch until the eleventh hour, but most issues are likely to be settled this month, according to Minxin Pei, an expert in Chinese politics and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Reading the tea leaves: Who is in the running?

China might be a one-party system, but like any other political power struggle, various factions work to usher supporters in and kick rivals out. Important considerations include the individual's relationship with Xi, the power of their patrons, seniority of current ranking, their age, experience and qualifications.

Also, little of this process is governed by law. For instance, there's no requirement that the number on the standing committee must stay at the current seven, and the informal retirement age of 68 may be waived. "That's absolutely possible," said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at King's College London. "There are no institutional restraints to that happening ... the party can do what it likes."

Here's a look at a few candidates who experts say might be up for promotion into the standing committee:

Li Zhanshu: Director of the general office of the Communist Party; often called Xi's right-hand man

Zhao Leji: Head of department of organization, which prescreens candidates and compiles short lists for key government posts. Prior to Zhao, five out of the eight people who had this job made it into the standing committee

Wang Huning: Head of China's central policy research office; thought to be close to Xi and an architect of major policy initiatives; said to be behind "Chinese Dream" campaign; specialist in U.S. politics

Hu Chunhua: Party secretary of Guangdong; in his mid-50s and the youngest of the bunch; regarded as a rising star

Han Zheng: Party secretary of Shanghai; that's a position often tipped for promotion

Wang Qishan: China's current anti-corruption czar and a close ally of Xi; believed to have significant clout; already on the standing committee and is of retirement age, but there's speculation he could see another term

Wang Yang: Third-ranked vice premier of State Council, which is part of the executive branch; two-term Politburo member and due to rise

Liu Qibao: Head of the propaganda department, a very powerful division; that's traditionally a position that gets promoted

And here are some people of interest who have a shot at the top, but are more likely to head for the wider 25-member Politburo:

Liu He: Vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission; oversees the Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs; economist by training and top economic advisor to Xi

Chen Min'er: Party secretary of Chongqing; recently named to new post after a potential Xi successor was ousted; previously worked under Xi when he was Zhejiang party leader

What's the process?

That's a tough question, as the government has never made public statements about it – it's extremely hush-hush: "Nobody knows," said Claremont McKenna's Pei.

What's generally though to occur is that Xi, as the highest ranking member of the current standing committee, will speak with other elites in Beidaihe to get a sense of plausible candidates for his short list. He'll then negotiate for his picks against those of existing members, many of whom are likely to retire. There's also an informal rule for Xi to consult with past presidents, but that's not an official requirement, Pei said.

Nothing is revealed until the fall party congress, which features a staggered selection process. First, party congress delegates (approximately 2,300) will select the new Central Committee (approximately 370). Then, roughly 200 with full voting rights in the new Central Committee will "cast" ballots for the Politburo and its powerful standing committee.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Getty Images

But here's the thing: It's all highly controlled and not really an open vote. For the initial Central Committee selection, there are usually more candidates than slots — somewhere around 10 percent more. But the ballot for the Politburo and its standing committee will feature the same number of candidates as open seats. "That list is already predetermined," Li explained.

Experts say Xi is a shoo-in to stay on as the top member of the standing committee, and is very likely to be given a second term as the party general secretary and chairman of the central military commission. Early next year, he is expected to be renewed as president in an annual legislative meeting. The issue is the how many votes Xi garners as a low number will be considered embarrassing, Li said.

Premier Li Keqiang is also likely to stay on the standing committee, though questions have circulated about his political future given speculation that he might take the fall for China's 2015 stock market crash.

Either way, there are likely to be many new faces: Eleven of the 25 in the current Politburo will retire if the informal cutoff age holds. And, Li estimated, as many as 70 percent of the central committee seats are up for grabs.

What does it all mean?

What happens could clue the world into how serious Xi may be about breaking tradition to hold a third stint – until 2027. Nothing prevents him from hanging onto his party title, such as general secretary. But by law, a president can only serve two terms. Xi can, however, amend the constitution.

"The party has no term limit, no age limit — this is informal," Pei said. "You can change the rules anytime."

Usually an heir apparent is promoted at the start of the second term. But if Xi is "determined to rule for 15 years, then there is no hurry for him to groom any successor," said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong specializing in Chinese politics.

Xi's consolidation of power is a key thread for China-watchers — especially after the recent purge of potential successor Sun Zhengcai, who was the party chief of Chongqing and a Politburo member.

Another sign Xi is ponying up for a third term is the splash he made last weekend during the 90th anniversary celebration of the People's Liberation Army. Whoever controls the military holds the power, Lam said.

Plus, some experts think Xi has generated so many enemies with his anti-corruption campaign — there's speculation that it has allowed him to install cronies in jobs poised for promotion — that he might need the protection of high office.

Of course, the dominoes could fall very differently in five years.

It also comes down to whether China still likes Xi. "That will mean an economy that is delivering, an improved natural environment, affordability of homes – all of the things that are the bread and butter of politics anywhere," said Brown.

If things are great, then Xi staying will be less risky than a changing of the guard. The Communist Party, Brown said, is really a risk management party.