| HONG KONG/BEIJING
HONG KONG/BEIJING In Chinese power politics, careers are often built on years of toil in quiet conformity, punctuated by the occasional flourish of leadership in time of crisis or a policy initiative that gets adopted nationwide.
The self-destruction of a rival doesn't hurt much either.
Indeed, Bo Xilai's ouster as Chongqing party chief on Thursday has put his own leadership prospects on ice and done more to boost the career prospects for his rivals in less time than perhaps anything they did themselves.
Reuters spoke to a number of sources with ties to the leadership to gauge who among the country's power elite might stand to benefit from Bo's fall from grace.
The obvious beneficiary is his chief rival, Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, who was Bo's predecessor in Chongqing and so had to endure the constant nagging political chatter about the rave successes of his "Chongqing model".
But Bo's removal has also eased pressure on other contenders vying for the highest office, and made it easier to peer through the Communist Party's opaque crystal ball and determine who will likely be running China by the end of this year.
At stake are seven seats on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power in China and the committee that sets direction on policy ranging from financial and economic policy, foreign policy and security and social welfare and education.
Two of those nine seats are reserved, for Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who have been on the Standing Committee since 2007 with China's party chief Hu Jintao, and are due to take over the reins of power at the Communist Party's 18th five-yearly Congress in the autumn.
Hu and other leaders will retire, forced out by age limits, and up to this week the seven vacancies were being contested by up to nine current Politburo members, including Bo.
As the Bo episode has shown, Chinese elite politics is a fluid world and things can change rapidly, making it difficult to predict with certainty how things will unfold when the secretive Communist Party finally settles on the new leadership.
Forecasting the style and direction of Xi and his Standing Committee is even more difficult. While Bo actively trumpeted his own policies, the others adhered to a more subdued leadership style. All support China's drive for economic reform and opening up, but because risk taking can be hazardous for one's political career, most have given little sign of how they would behave once in office.
They are expected at least initially to adhere to the consensus driven model of decision making set by Hu Jintao. In short, expect bland and incremental before brash or bold.
Most sources say the charismatic Bo will likely be sidelined at best.
"Bo Xilai's chances of getting into the Standing Committee are extremely slim, but he will not give up like this," one source with leadership ties told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
Still with Bo looking far out of the picture, the others should have an easier time contending and, when the jockeying stops, could find themselves in the final line-up of the Standing Committee when it is set in stone late this year.
"Until then, there will be plenty of manoeuvring by those holding top positions and those hoping to get a seat at the Standing Committee of the Politburo," Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham and director of the China Policy Institute, wrote in a commentary.
"Bo's Standing Committee dream is over, but how his fate will be decided will affect the prospects of others -- and with it how China will be managed in the next decade," he said.
Unless Hu and other top leaders surprise by appointing the first woman in Communist China's history or a young Turk from the 1960s generation to signal who will take over after Xi, sources said the seven places on the Standing Committee will likely fill out as follows:
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Wang Yang, who turns 57 this month, the reformist party chief of China's southern economic powerhouse of Guangdong. His conciliatory handling of civil unrest in the fishing village of Wukan drew plaudits for defusing the protracted standoff, which ended in a breakthrough for grassroots civil rights activism. A native of Anhui province, he is a protege of President Hu.
A former factory worker, Wang rose swiftly through the party ranks and was Bo's predecessor in Chongqing. Their rivalry spawned the nickname "the two cannons". When promoted to Guangdong in 2007, one of China's most strategically important provincial posts, Wang was given a Politburo seat and dubbed the "Young Marshall" for his decisive yet easy-going leadership style.
Wang made frequent calls to reform and upgrade Guangdong's competitiveness and industrial base by moving toward higher technology industries, even at the height of the 2008-2009 financial crisis when thousands of Pearl River Delta factories went bankrupt. Last year, he championed a "Happy Guangdong" development concept, emphasising not just economic growth but also social, environmental and quality of life factors.
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Wang Qishan, currently the most junior of four vice premiers and a darling of foreign investors who has long been brought in as a problem solver, sorting out a debt crisis in Guangdong in the late 1990s and replacing the sacked Beijing mayor after a cover-up of the deadly SARS virus in 2003.
Wang, the princeling son-in-law of a former vice premier, is tipped to become the first ranked of the vice premiers.
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Liu Yunshan, the propaganda minister who has kept domestic media on a tight leash, could take over the propaganda portfolio for the Standing Committee, sources said.
As minister of the party's Propaganda Department since 2002, Liu has also sought to control China's increasingly unruly Internet, which has over 450 million users. He has been a member of the Politburo for two five-year terms ending this year.
Liu, 64, worked in the northern region of Inner Mongolia for more than 20 years until 1993 when he was named a vice minister of propaganda. The schoolteacher-turned-politician is a native of the northern coal-rich province of Shanxi.
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Li Yuanchao, 61, who oversees the appointment of senior party, government and military officials as head of the party's powerful organisation department is a shoo-in for the Standing Committee, sources with ties to the top leadership said.
Li, whose father was a vice-mayor of Shanghai, has risen far since he was a humble farm hand during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. An astute politician, Li is able to navigate between various interest groups, from Hu Jintao's Communist Youth League power base to the so-called "princelings", the children of China's political elite.
"Li Yuanchao is acceptable both to the Youth League faction and the princelings," one source told Reuters.
As party chief in his native province, Jiangsu, from 2002 to 2007 Li oversaw a rapid rise in personal incomes and economic development, attracting foreign investment from global industrial leaders like Ford, Samsung and Caterpillar.
Shortly after taking over in Jiangsu, he personally phoned a European company, a major foreign investor in the province, to ask if there was anything he could do for them. He earned mathematics and economics degrees from two of China's best universities and a doctorate in law, and also spent a few months at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
He is a possible for vice president.
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Zhang Dejiang, 65, whose chances of promotion were boosted on Thursday when he was chosen to replace Bo in Chongqing, serving concurrently in his current post as vice premier. As vice premier in charge of industry, his star had been tarnished by the downfall of the railway minister for corruption in 2011.
Zhang, who is close to former president Jiang Zemin who still wields some influence, studied economics at Kim Il-sung University in North Korea and is a native of northeast China. On his watch as party chief of Guangdong, the southern province maintained its position as a powerhouse of China's economic growth, even as it struggled with energy shortages, corruption-fuelled unrest and the emergence of the 2003 SARS epidemic.
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Zhang Gaoli, 65, party chief of the northern port city of Tianjin and a Politburo member since 2007, is a Jiang ally.
He was sent to clean up Tianjin, which was hit by a string of corruption scandals implicating Zhang's predecessor and the former top adviser to the city's lawmaking body. The adviser committed suicide shortly after Zhang's arrival.
A native of the southeastern province of Fujian, Zhang is an economist by training. He also served as party chief of the northern province of Shandong and Guangdong vice governor.
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Yu Zhengsheng, Shanghai party boss, whose impeccable Communist pedigree made him a rising star in the mid-1980s until his brother, an intelligence agent, defected to the United States. His close ties with Deng Pufang, the son of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, spared him the full political repercussions but he was taken off the fast track.
Yu bided his time in ministerial ranks until bouncing back, joining the Politburo in 2002. The princeling would be a front runner to become parliament chairman, though his age (he turns 67 in April) would require him to retire in 2017 after one term.
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That would round out the new Standing Committee, unless Hu tries to make a bolder step. One option would be Liu Yandong, a princeling also tied to President Hu's Youth League faction. She has been discussed as head of the advisory body to parliament, but because at 67, she is on the cusp of retirement, her age is a factor against her. Her bigger challenge is that no woman has made it into the Standing Committee since 1949.
"Not even Jiang Qing or Deng Yingchao were members of the Politburo Standing Committee," one source said, referring to the widows of late Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai.
Liu, daughter of a former vice-minister of agriculture, is the only woman in the 25-member Politburo, a minority in China's male dominated political culture. She has been on the wider Politburo since 2007 as one of five state councillors, a rank senior to a cabinet minister but junior to a vice-premier.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)