THE stakes are so high in Thursday's leadership transition that many Chinese analysts are framing it in terms of the rise and fall of dynasties, amid accumulating social, political and economic stresses.
After a year of scandals and rising public cynicism, the administration of General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao begin the handover to a new team led by their deputies, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, at 2pm Melbourne time.
The identities of another five, or perhaps seven, leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee - the inner sanctum of power - will be gleaned by the order in which they walk on stage at the Great Hall of the People.
Analysts, including global investors from Sydney to New York, will be looking for the names of two key potential reformers, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, as they gauge the likelihood that the party can deal with growing challenges to the way it dominates political and economic life.
They will also be watching whether Mr Hu hangs on to his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, as did his irrepressible 86-year-old predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
Mr Hu's complete retirement might indicate the ascendancy of factional rivals led by Mr Jiang, analysts say.
Alternatively, it could suggest Mr Hu has begun to institutionalise the winner-takes-all norms of elite combat that have governed Chinese politics for two millennia.
"A lot of Chinese think of political development in terms of the dynastic cycle," said Feng Chongyi, a political scientist at the University of Technology, Sydney. "The Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang leadership is the last opportunity for the party to start a transition to constitutional democracy to break away from the dynastic cycle."
Dr Feng, an insider and activist, has ceased paying his party membership fees but is yet to have his membership formally revoked.
China watchers, analysts and pro-democracy advocates are fiercely debating whether Mr Xi is at heart a reformer or a stalwart product of the ruling party system.
Some contend that Mr Xi will bide his time and consolidate his power before embarking on a bold political restructuring of the country's Communist-run political system. Others see an inherently cautious operator who has no interest, and certainly no power, to dramatically reform the system.
At most, they say, he might offer token reforms to stave off dissent and maintain the party's ironclad grip on power.
About the only one in Beijing who has not offered a view of any kind is Mr Xi. Keeping with protocol, he has said little during the past months or years that would reveal even the slimmest hint of his intentions. His public speeches have largely been typical jargon laced with Communist fare, urging the party to maintain "purity".
Mr Xi's silence on political reform has made the portly 59-year-old a veritable walking Rorschach test, allowing observers to project onto him whatever views they choose, or perhaps hope, to see.
"Compared to Hu Jintao, Xi is more like a reformer," said Mao Yushi, an economist, offering one commonly heard sentiment. "China is a country under dictatorship, but the new leadership group, I don't think, will take active measures to change the situation. It's too difficult."
Li Datong, a journalist and reform advocate who was fired from his editor's job at China Youth Daily for pushing against official censorship, said he believed Mr Xi realised the imperative for reform but might be hamstrung by a Communist Party that is fearful of losing its power.
"The CPC is facing an unprecedented crisis of credibility, which is fatal for them," Li said.
"The party has already lost its credibility because of the long time of one-party dictatorship. The regime will collapse like the last few years of [the] Qing Dynasty if the new leaders don't catch this chance to reform."
The new Politburo Standing Committee, the Party's innermost sanctum of power, will be unveiled on stage at the Great Hall of the People on Thursday, November 15. They will rule China for the next five years with two of the leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, expected to stay on until 2022.
Xi and Li are near-certainties to be general secretary of the Party and premier respectively.
The other five (or will it be seven?) spots are up for grabs.
Vice-president Xi Jinping, set to take control of the Party, is not known for any significant achievements or egregious mistakes. He has presence, even charisma, but is nevertheless a compromise candidate who has managed to straddle factional, ideological and bureaucratic divides. From November 15, he will have to show the character and political acuity that many of his close friends believe he has and lead China into the modern era.
One great advantage Xi Jinping has is that his father was a respected revolutionary hero who was a leader in the reform team after the Cultural Revolution. The exclusive princeling network Xi grew up within now reaches across the heights of the Party, military and business.
Xi has led the dynamic coastal economies of both Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. He owes his factional allegiances to former president Jiang Zemin, although he also has relationships with president Hu Jintao's Youth League faction.
Li Keqiang is the vice-premier who is in line to become premier in March. In the early 1980s he was a respected student leader at Peking University, where he studied law and economics. His early accomplishments include co-translating The Due Process of Law, by Lord Denning. It is difficult to judge Lis record over 25 years in government, given the Partys insistence on collective decision-making and secrecy. As vicepremier with responsibility for the economy, he appears to have been in a competitive relationship with another ambitious leader, Wang Qishan, and may be hoping Wang gets parked at a distant corner of the Party apparatus. Lis factional critics accuse him of being timid.
He is the protege and preferred successor of president Hu Jintao, but was overtaken by Xi at the 17th Party Congress. Li used to run the Communist Youth League, as did Hu.
One of the most important and respected of the incoming leaders and has been in charge of the all-powerful Organisation Department.
He is known for his capacity to communicate, innovate and discuss reform.
He is a princeling whose father was vicemayor of Shanghai. He also worked closely with president Hu Jintao in the Communist Youth League.
Perhaps the most important piece of information about China's reform prospects will be whether as many fear - he has been excluded from the Politburo Standing Committee.
The patron saint of Chinese investment banking, having led China Construction Bank and then a pioneering joint venture with Morgan Stanley in the 1990s.
Especially well known and liked among US political leaders and financiers, which may have led him to compensate in recent years with a more nationalistic stance.
Owes his rise to patrons including the renowned economic reformer, former premier Zhu Rongji, and former president Jiang Zemin.
He joined the princeling club by marrying the daughter of one of the great revolutionaries, Yao Yilin.
Has the incongruous distinction of being trained in economics at North Korea's Kim Il-sung University and then sent to run the countrys two most entrepreneurial provinces, Guangdong and Zhejiang.
He is seen as a capable trouble-shooter, who was sent to take control of Chongqing after the implosion of Bo Xilai.
A factional protege of former president Jiang Zemin. Zhang is the current vice premier in charge of industry.
When Premier Wen Jiabao stands down next year Wang will be the flag bearer for liberal reform.
Took a risk earlier this year by leading a negotiated compromise with residents of Wukan village, who had turfed out the local Party elite.
He has continued to boldly speak the language of small government and reform even if his actual record is more ambiguous.
He is a member of Hu Jintao's Youth League faction.
His odds of entering the Standing Committee appear to have lengthened in recent times.
A creature of China's huge, corrupt and despised propaganda bureaucracy.
He is seen as a personal sponsor of the Maoist revivalist website Utopia, giving them space to attack their liberal political opponents, until the downfall of their hero Bo Xilai.
Liu's son, Liu Lefei, runs a large private equity fund for the state-controlled financial conglomerate CITIC.
His factional allegiances are perhaps illustrated by his sons marriage to the daughter of Chinas former spy chief Jia Chunwang, who went to university alongside Hu Jintao.
From one of the great revolutionary families, was best known in the 1980s as the brother of the Chinese intelligence official who defected to the United States and sold out China's most important mole inside the CIA.
His fortunes recovered, thanks to the patronage of the eldest son of Deng Xiaoping and he now runs the strategically crucial metropolis of Shanghai.
Yu is admired as a deft and capable leader. Xi Jinping would be pleased if this fellow princeling was promoted to work alongside him.
Known for his mastery of the levers of patronage and business, has led Tianjin Municipality to be the fastest growing province-level region in China.
Has led an enormous investment binge to build a new modern city and financial centre which has involved the forced relocation of thousands of disgruntled peasants.
Zhang is a factional ally of former president Jiang Zemin.
Despite Maos claim that women hold up half the sky, has only a slim chance of being the first woman to make the Standing Committee since the 1949 revolution.
Assisted by her close ties to President Hus Youth League faction and also her status as a junior princeling, whose father was a vice-minister of agriculture.
From the United Front department, which is responsible for eliciting support from individuals and organisations outside the Party.
She is known as sympathetic to the cause of reform.