The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the jailed initiator of Charter 08, which calls for the introduction of democratic reforms in China.
Not surprisingly, the award has enraged Beijing with a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson describing it as 'obscene'.
Charter 08, released on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (on 10 December 2008) was inspired by Charter 77, issued by dissidents in Czechoslovakia under Vaclav Havel.
The demands listed in it include: amending the Chinese Constitution, separation of powers, legislative democracy, an independent judiciary, public control of public servants, guarantee of human rights, rural-urban equality and freedom of association, assembly, expression and religion.
The Nobel to Liu for raising these issues comes at a very special time for China.
Though the Communist Party does not have to worry about general elections and votebanks, its 18th Congress, to be held in October 2012 (just two years from now), will see General Secretary Hu Jintao and most of his colleagues in the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PBSC) bidding goodbye to politics. Being past the age limit of 70, seven of the nine members will stop running the day-to-day affairs of the Party (and the country).
While observers generally agree that Vice-President Xi Jinping will replace Hu (at least as President and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary) and that First Vice-Premier Li Keqiang will succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier, the jockeying for the seven other coveted posts in the standing comittee is open to new fifth- and sixth-generation leaders.
Several papers analysing the upcoming power struggle have recently been published.
Willy Lam, a veteran China expert, has written one of the best analyses for The Jamestown Foundation, titled Changing of the Guard: Beijing grooms sixth generation cadres for 2020. Lam goes into the strengths and weaknesses of the two major factions, the Communist Youth League Clique (lead by Hu Jintao) and the Gang of Princelings (lead by Xi).
The paper pays great attention 'to the political traits and policy orientations of a host of sixth-generation rising stars such as the Party Secretaries of Inner Mongolia, Hunan and Jilin, respectively Hu Chunhua, Zhou Qiang and Sun Zhengcai (the leaders for the 2020's).'
As Lam explains, 'President Hu and his PBSC colleagues play a major role in picking their own successors - and sometimes even the successors of their successors. While headhunters at the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) Organization Department are looking for a high level of professional competence, they are setting even more store by 'morality', namely the candidates' ideological and political correctness as well as readiness to toe the Beijing line.'
In other words the message is: 'Stick to the book and you will be promoted.'
One of Lam's conclusions is that in the current scenario there is very little chance for the emergence of a new Gorbachev or even a Hu Yaobang, the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary who in the 1980's attempted to usher in a few reforms and might have brought about the changes dreamt about by Nobel Laureate Liu.
One of the difficulties, Lam points out is 'The twin deficit of talent and fresh ideas may render it difficult for the CCP leadership to reach ambitious economic and diplomatic goals for the first half of the 21st century'.
There is however another factor, perhaps even more important: the People's Liberation Army.
The Central Military Commission which runs China's defence affairs is also due for renewal. What role will the PLA play in the change of guard?
President Hu will probably remain as the Chairman for a few years, but many new generals will join the 12-member Commission (Hu and Xi Jinping, who was named Vice Chairman of Commission on Monday are the only civilians on board).
In the China Leadership Monitor, Cheng Li in a paper entitled China's Midterm Jockeying: Gearing Up for 2012 - Military Leaders has observed that 'although the political leadership's control over the military has not been challenged in the last two decades, several factors - a possibly ineffective civilian collective leadership, growing social tensions and public protests, and China's great power aspirations amid a rapidly changing global environment - may all enhance the military's influence and power in the years to come.'
While trying to reveal 'the new dynamics between civilian and military elites', he sees 'the possible challenges that lie ahead', and concludes: 'At a time when China faces an uncertain leadership succession at home and must follow an uncharted path of searching for its new power position in the world, the upcoming large-scale turnover in PLA leadership and the potential pitfalls associated with it deserve serious attention.'
Take the tussle between Beijing and Washington over the joint US-South Korean exercises.
General Luo of the Yuan Academy of Military Sciences vividly captured the Chinese view: 'How can we let a stranger fall sound asleep just outside our bedroom?'
He even quoted Mao Zedong: 'If people don't offend me, I won't offend them; if people run afoul of me, I will surely hit back.'
One could ask, why are the generals seemingly toeing a different line when the official policy promoted by Hu Jintao envisages a peaceful rise of China?
Well, simply because the PLA wants to play an increasinly important role in formulating the foreign policy of China and the generals are ready to call the shots. This is not a good omen for India.
The change of guard will probably be an occasion for the hardliners amongst the PLA and PLAN (Chinese Navy) 'to lobby for more economic and political resources to upgrade their arsenal.'
For any China watcher, the scenario appears complicated, uncertain. To put it simply, the balance between the different forces, cliques and gangs is extremely fragile.
The Nobel Peace Prize to Liu gives a boost to another lobby generally not mentioned in the succession war: those (perhaps like Premier Wen Jiabao) who want to usher in a degree of democratic reform into totalitarian China.
The publication by a group of former senior officials of a strongly-worded open letter to the top legislature calling for an end of media censorship is a sign of the resurgence of the 'fifth modernisation (Deng Xiaoping had spoken of 4 modernisations), dear to those who wrote posters on the Democracy Wall on the Tiananmen Square in 1979.
Now, these Elders demand that books and papers from Hong Kong and Macau, popular among mainland readers, be made available on mainland and asked for free speech, which, they say is enshrined in the 1982 constitution.
The signatories questioned the fact that even the Chinese Premier is today censored in China: 'Wen talked about political reform on [many] occasions, but it was not mentioned in reports by Xinhua. What right does the Central Propaganda Department have to place itself even above the Communist Party Central Committee, and above the State Council [Cabinet]?'
An interesting two years lie ahead.
More columns by Claude Arpi