BEIJING — On the eve of a key Communist Party congress, Chinese President Hu Jintao's favored successor appears to have lost traction, throwing into question whether a strong heir apparent will emerge during Hu's second five-year term in power.
The congress, which occurs every fifth year, opens Monday with the gathering of 2,217 leading political apparatchiks in this one-party state.
While deliberations over leadership in China are famously opaque, scholars and former party insiders say they expect no deviation from the authoritarian politics and market economics that have guided China's rise to the threshold of superpower status.
"What's more important about this congress is what they are not going to talk about, which is democratic reform," said Russell Leigh Moses, a political scientist and longtime resident of China.
Instead, most eyes will be on which party leaders are ushered into retirement from the nine-seat Politburo Standing Committee, the body that weighs major policy questions, and the rising stars, most of them in their 50s, who replace them.
Hu, a cautious and sphinx-like engineer, had hoped to help a 52-year-old loyalist from the ranks of the Communist Youth League, Li Keqiang, ascend to the Politburo and take a seat in the Standing Committee, which would align him as a successor. Li, a lawyer, now serves as party chief in the northeastern rustbelt province of Liaoning.
But news reports suggest that a dark horse, Xi Jinping, 54, who was tapped early this year to head the beleaguered Shanghai branch of the party, has emerged as the odds-on favorite to become vice president, in line to succeed Hu as the party's secretary general in 2012.
Unlike past supreme leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the 64-year-old Hu lacks the clout to impose his successor, and the party's succession struggles have generated instability in the past.
What Hu actually believes is hard to know. He's never spoken to the press in China, and his public appearances are tightly scripted.
So the run-up to the Congress has been rife with reports of horse-trading over who may rise to the Standing Committee and who'll be forced to step down because of advancing age.
"The unwritten rule has been (retirement at age) 68, with exceptions. For example, (former leader) Jiang Zemin was allowed to stay on," said Dali Yang, the director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.
An established view is that Hu has spent the past five years constrained by senior cadres loyal to Jiang, the 81-year-old former leader, who stacked the Politburo with supporters. Hu will seek to sweep aside rivals and cement his creed of "scientific development," which puts less emphasis on unbridled economic growth and more on addressing social inequality, even as his regime suppresses civil and press freedoms.
China's leadership is as collective as it is secretive, letting little daylight into its inner sanctums for the public to see the merits of individual leaders.
Some experts foresee little change from the pending shake-up at the party's apex.
"The new Standing Committee will remain as conservative over the next five years as this current one. There won't be big changes. What it will do is make specific policy adjustments," said Zhang Zuhua, a political theorist aligned with democratic reformers.
Some analysts say that a factional struggle may give way to some volatility, especially if an unresolved rivalry between Li and Xi, who are both princelings, or sons of revered party founders, leaves two tigers roaming one mountain. Amid dissension, the party is likely to emphasize social stability and remain allergic to political change.
"Hu shows few signs of being the sort of transformational leader that some in China think the country requires," Moses said. "His allies are not the type to promote deep political change."
Still, analysts note that such conclaves can produce unexpected results, and that heirs apparent sometimes are purged before they can grasp the brass ring.
"Surprises can always happen," said Yang.
One seat on the Standing Committee is vacant because of the death of Vice Premier Huang Ju. Two other aged party leaders, Luo Gan and Wu Guanzheng, are expected to step down. Yet to be seen is if Vice President Zeng Qinghong, sixth in the party hierarchy, will quit because he has reached 68, leaving four seats up for grabs.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Fan Di contributed to this report.)