Xi Jinping, poised to clinch a third five-year term as China's leader, will on Sunday preside over the most dramatic moment of the Communist Party's twice-a-decade congress and reveal the members of its elite Politburo Standing Committee.
Xi's break with precedent to rule beyond a decade was set in motion when he abandoned presidential term limits in 2018. His norm-busting as China's most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong has made it even harder to predict who will join him on the standing committee.
The 69-year-old leader's grip on power appears undiminished by a sharp economic slowdown, frustration over his zero-Covid policy, and China's increasing estrangement from the West, exacerbated by his support for Russia's Vladimir Putin.
The new leadership will be unveiled when Xi, widely expected to be renewed in China's top post as party general secretary, walks into a room of journalists at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, followed by the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) in descending order of rank.
The lineup – who is in, who is not, and who is revealed to replace Premier Li Keqiang when he retires in March – will give party-watchers grist to speculate over just how much Xi has consolidated power by appointing loyalists.
At the same time, some analysts and diplomats say, the makeup of the standing committee and the identity of the premier matter less than they once did because Xi has moved away from a tradition of collective leadership.
"The new PSC line up will tell us whether Xi cares only about personal loyalty or whether he values some diversity of opinion at the top," said Ben Hillman, director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at Australian National University.
"It is possible that the new PSC will consist entirely of Xi loyalists, which will signify the consolidation of Xi's power, but pose great risks for China. A group of 'yes' men at the top will limit the information available for decision-making."
In or out?
At least two of the seven current Standing Committee members are expected to retire due to age norms. Reports this week in the Wall Street Journal and South China Morning Post suggest there could be as many as four openings, with Premier Li, 67, possibly among those stepping down.
As for the next premier, although Wang Yang, 67, and Hu Chunhua, 59, a former and current vice premier, respectively, are both considered by analysts to be well-qualified by the traditional standards of a role charged with overseeing the economy, they lack long-term connections to Xi.
Shanghai party boss Li Qiang, who has long-standing ties to Xi, is likely to join the PSC and is considered a leading contender to be premier, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing unnamed sources close to party leaders.
Li's elevation to premier would be a strong sign of the importance of loyalty to Xi following Shanghai's punishing and unpopular two-month COVID-10 lockdown this year, for which Li drew heavy blame from residents.
Another loyalist seen by party-watchers as a candidate for promotion is Ding Xuexiang, 60, who is Xi's chief secretary and head of the Central Committee's powerful General Office, which manages the administrative affairs of the top leadership.