In October 2007, nine of the most powerful men in China walked across a stage in the massive Great Hall of the People, at the closing of the Communist Party's twice-a-decade National Congress. "Once they were assembled, an untrained eye might have had difficulty telling them apart," Financial Times journalist Richard Macgregor writes in his 2010 book The Party about China's communist rulers. "The nine all wore dark suits, and all but one sported a red tie. They all displayed slick, jet-black pompadours, a product of the uniform addiction to regular hair-dyeing of senior Chinese politicians, a habit only broken by retirement or imprisonment."
The nine men's order on the stage announced to the outside world their ranking in the Politburo Standing Committee, the governing body that rules China and seemed to signify the inevitability of their leadership--ignoring the reality of infighting, jockeying, and compromise by the party elites who selected the nine members far away from the public eye. For those watching at home, these nine men with different ideas, personalities, and networks were distinguishable by their distance from the center of power.
If tradition holds, another group of men will again stroll across the stage in October during the 18th National Congress, this time led by Xi Jinping, the man widely expected to replace Hu Jintao, followed by Li Keqiang, whom party watchers expect will replace Wen Jiabao as premier. The next seven spots (or five or six; Hu Jintao is reportedly pushing for a smaller Standing Committee so that he maintains more influence after he steps down) are likely open and fiercely contested by roughly a dozen powerful men -- and one woman. Wang Yang, party secretary of Guangdong, China's most popular province and the subject of a profile in Foreign Policy's latest issue is one contender. The outside world knows little about Wang and the other personalities or their standings in the party elite. "The deals are so complicated," says Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution. "We don't know the facts involved. We know one hundredth of what [the party elite] knows." With those caveats in mind, here are five people besides Xi and Li whose smiling, stage-managed faces we might see on that red stage in October.
The mayor of Beijing from 2003 to 2007, Wang Qishan is currently the vice premier responsible for economic, energy, and financial affairs, serving under outgoing premier Wen. Wang's former counterpart, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, called him "decisive and inquisitive," with a "wicked sense of humor." The son-in-law of the late Vice Premier Yao Yilin, Wang is one of the princelings, a group of often high-ranking leaders who are the sons and daughters of top officials. Chinese political observers see princelings like Wang as more closely allied with the leadership faction of former President Jiang Zemin than that of current President Hu Jintao. Brookings' Li thinks Wang, nicknamed "chief of the fire brigade" for his competence amid crisis, is almost certain to obtain a seat on the Standing Committee.
The party secretary of the metropolis of Tianjin and an economist who formerly worked in the oil industry, Zhang is known as being low-key, even for a Chinese official. In 2011, Tianjin under his stewardship grew at 16.4 percent, the highest rate in China, tied with the metropolis of Chongqing. Zhang is seen as a protégé of Jiang Zemin and Jiang advisor Zeng Qinghong; he is known for his pro-market leanings, having served as party secretary of Shenzhen, China's center of cowboy capitalism, from 1997 to 2001. But if Binhai, the development zone that has driven much of Tianjin's growth, fails under Zhang's stewardship, it could hurt his chances of promotion.