Months of sharp behind-the-scenes jostling reach a climax Thursday with the announcement of a new Chinese leadership that almost regardless of its makeup is likely to be much like the one it replaces: divided, deliberative and weak.
All but officially announced, Xi Jinping is expected to head the new leadership as Communist Party chief, joined by Li Keqiang, the presumptive prime minster, in a choreographed succession that began five years ago when the two were anointed as successors. Alongside them at the apex of power, the Politburo Standing Committee, will be a handful of senior politicians drawn from top positions in the provinces and bureaucracies.
Their ascent was nudged along Wednesday when a weeklong party congress closed by naming Xi, Li and the other leading candidates to the Central Committee, a 205-member body which appoints the new leadership Thursday. Left off the list was Hu Jintao, who is retiring as party chief after 10 years. A top general told reporters that Hu is also relinquishing his sole remaining powerful post, as head of the military, a significant break from the past that would give Xi leeway to establish his authority.
Leadership lineups typically strike a balance between different interest groups in the 82 million-member party. None of new leaders owe their positions to Xi, but to other political patrons. Decisions are made largely by consensus, forcing Xi to bargain with his colleagues who have their own allegiances and power bases. Party elders, with Hu being the newest, exert influence over major policies through their proteges, further constraining Xi.
While China's leadership may have an image in the rest of the world as decisive and all-powerful, the reality is that decision-making tends to be a slow-going affair.
"It's a power game," said Zheng Yongnian, a China politics expert at the National University of Singapore. "The Standing Committee doesn't function well. They all have to agree, and there are too many checks on each other, so nothing gets done."
If not gridlock, the incremental, step-by-step policy-making of the past comes as China confronts slowing growth, a cavernous rich-poor gap and a clamor for change, in protests and on the Internet, for better government and curbing corruption and the privileges of the politically connected elite.
"Even for a coherent leadership, those problems are challenging, not to mention a divided leadership, which hasn't consolidated its own power base," said Zhu Jiangnan of Hong Kong University.
Unlike the stiff, ultra-reserved Hu, the 59-year-old Xi exudes a comfort with his authority, as befits the son of a hero of the revolution born into the Communist elite. Like Xi, the rest of the leadership came of age as China reopened universities and reached out to the world after the isolation of Mao Zedong's radical rule. As such, their educational backgrounds are more varied than those of Hu and the engineers he led, and they're believed to be more open to ideas.
Charisma is feared by the party, which promotes capable administrators. Bo Xilai, a telegenic top politician once considered a candidate for the leadership, was purged this year in a scandal that buffeted the party. Though he is accused of corruption and aiding the cover-up of his wife's murder of a British businessman, his crime may have been his populist rhetoric and policies that gave him a popular following, but alienated other leaders.
"The system discourages people of unique personalities. It often results in those with colorful characteristics losing out," said Wang Zhengxu of Britain's University of Nottingham.
China's long march to collective leadership marked a concerted attempt to move away from the ruinous later years of Mao when he was worshipped as infallible and factions battled each other like street gangs. Millions of Chinese died or saw their lives and careers upended in the persecution.
The victor in the struggle for power after Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping, sought to end the cult of personality and put China on the path of market-oriented reforms. He was the last strongman from the revolutionary generation, able to summon alliances across the party, the government and the military and impose his vision on others. Ever since, each successive generation of leaders has been forced into painstaking coalition-building to get things done.
The most rumored leadership lineup among Beijing's political watchers seems to favor allies of Jiang Zemin, the 86-year-old former party supremo who stepped aside for Hu a decade ago. Aside from Xi, a Jiang protege, and premier-in-waiting Li, who is Hu's man, the contenders include Zhang Dejiang and Zhang Gaoli, two technocrats who worked with Jiang, and Liu Yunshan, the strict propaganda czar who counts Hu as an early career ally and Jiang as a later mentor.
Certain to be included is Wang Qishan, a longtime trouble-shooter who was named to the party's internal watchdog agency on Wednesday. Also in the running is Yu Zhengsheng, Shanghai's party secretary whose main qualification is his family's ties to long-dead reformist patriarch Deng, another sign of the lingering influence of party elders.
If true — and bargaining continued to take place over the past week, according to party-connected academics in Beijing — the roster leaves out key Hu allies. It's also heavy on older politicians who under current practice would have to retire at the next congress in five years. That's a recipe for continued wrangling as Hu's proteges, feeling left out, resist Xi's rule and campaign for the next leadership, political analysts said.
"China's not a democracy but the leadership is a not a monolithic group," said Cheng Li, a Chinese elite politics expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington. "Balance is important because it's in everyone's interests."
Even with unity in its ranks, Xi's collective leadership will need the better part of a year to assemble a full team. Government offices, like the prime minister or the ceremonial state presidency Hu still holds, do not change hands until the legislature meets in March, delaying the transition.
Should Hu give up his role as head of the military commission, he can still count on the commanders he has promoted across the services of the People's Liberation Army. Proof of that muscle came on the eve of the congress. A general whom Hu appointed to manage the military parade for the 60th anniversary of Communist rule in 2009, Fang Fenghui, was named chief of the general staff and a vice chairman of the commission.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report.