China is preparing to accept a new generation of leaders here who will steer one of the world’s most populous countries and all of its challenges for the next decade. It is already known that Xi Jinping is China’s fifth president, due to take power in the spring.  Members of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo that will serve with him are to be chosen by secret ballot this week.

Secrecy is a political tradition here.   While the opening of the 18th Communist Party Congress (known locally as shi ba da, or 18th Big) was all red carpets, press invitations and live broadcasts, the sealing of the vault quickly followed. Only when the elite decide the time is right will the carpets again be unrolled so that the world might know who is in charge.

“This upcoming power transition in the top leadership will likely be the largest in the past three decades,” said Cheng Li, a leading China analyst at the Brookings Institute.

For veteran observers of Chinese politics or those who aspire to follow along there is one key fact to note:  Guessing is a pretty big part of it.  The one-party system earned the moniker “black box politics” for a reason.   Those who claim inside knowledge might be stretching the truth.  Forecasts or declarations are a gamble.  The upside is that everybody else is guessing too so at least one and all can appear clever. 

Nuance plays an equally important role.  At a recent reception at the Great Hall of the People, there were three reporters with binoculars in our corral at the back of the room.  They monitored who clinked wine glasses first, who smiled and who did not as signals of the new leadership taking shape.

A basic decoding of the political system here requires a rough outline of the Communist Party itself.  It is not a single entity with a single vision of authoritarian rule.  There are actually two ‘camps’ with differing ideologies, and how they are balanced in this fifth generation of leaders could set the stage for infighting.

 The first camp, the “princelings”, includes incoming president Xi Jinping.  These are the children of high-ranking officials of the revolutionary era.  John Dotson at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission says the princelings “tend to favour policies that maximize economic growth, with greater acceptance of growing disparities of wealth.”

They are also referred to as the “Shanghai Clique” as many of them have held prime positions in the coastal provinces that have boomed with China’s economy.

The second camp is known as the “tuanpai”, officials who have climbed through the Communist youth ranks and according to Dotson they claim experience in the poorer inland regions as well as “Party Affairs work such as propaganda”.  The incoming premier (equivalent to prime minister) Le Keqiang hails from this group.

The wider Politburo usually has 25 members, though the expulsion of Bo Xilai, who is accused of several crimes including abuse of power and adultery, reduced it to 24.  

Committees and prime positions are decided by election among Party powerbrokers, which some policymakers regard as a sort of “democratic experiment”, says Cheng Li. 

The broader Communist Party itself, as measured by the Organization Department, has more than 82.6 million members making it the largest political party in the world.  Yet in a country of 1.3 billion people, it represents less than 10% of the population.

(Graphics to the rescue here: Who are the Chinese Communist Party?)

Many of the “decisions” being made during 18th Big were actually made long ago.  The Party elite gathered this past summer at the beach resort of Beidaihe for (you guessed it) a secret meeting to discuss the new leadership.

Xi Jinping was tapped as Hu Jintao’s successor back in 2007.  He is known to like basketball, and is believed to be open to limited reforms.  But for most Chinese he is probably best known by his wife.  Peng Liyuan is a wildly famous singer, and may prove to be the first First Lady required to lower her profile.