BEIJING China's three most powerful men have come up with preferred candidates to head up the nation's new leadership, sources said, in a group that includes financial reformers but leaves a question mark over its commitment to political reform.
The seven-member list has been drawn up by past, present and future presidents ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership change to be finalised next month at the ruling Communist Party's 18th congress, said three sources with ties to senior party leaders.
They said former President Jiang Zemin, current President Hu Jintao and Hu's likely successor, Xi Jinping, have forged a consensus on candidates for the top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee - a move that could pave the way for a smooth selection process after months of political tumult.
Their list - still subject to opposition and change by other party elders - envisages a Standing Committee cut to seven from nine and headed by Xi and Premier-designate Li Keqiang, 57, who is considered the only other certainty to make the top team.
A smaller committee would make it easier for Xi, 59, to establish his authority and push through badly needed reforms, the sources said. They noted that the preferred list would include Vice Premier Wang Qishan, 64, a darling of foreign investors who currently runs the finance portfolio.
However, the ticket omits one of the party's most outspoken political reformers, Wang Yang, 57, party boss of southern Guangdong province. A contender, he is viewed by many in the West as a beacon of political reform due to his relative tolerance of freer speech and grassroots civil rights.
Instead, the ticket includes Liu Yunshan, 65, the party's propaganda minister, who has kept domestic media on a tight leash and sought to control China's increasingly unruly Internet which has more than 500 million users.
"Hu Jintao would like Wang Yang off the Standing Committee, because he's too reformist, too much risk of significant change," said David Zweig, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
However, he said the list was well balanced with candidates conscious of the need for reform, though likely to move slower on political than economic reforms. "I'm a believer that this group is going to move fairly quickly for change," Zweig added.
The other preferred candidates on the list stand out more for their internal party alliances than any declared reformist credentials: Li Yuanchao, 61, who heads the party's powerful organisation department; Zhang Dejiang, 65, who took over as party boss of southwestern Chongqing from deposed one-time contender Bo Xilai; and Zhang Gaoli, 65, party chief of Tianjin.
Judging the appetite of individuals for political reform is difficult. It could be dangerous for candidates to openly declare their stance at this stage, though Zhang Gaoli along with Wang Qishan are financial reformers by nature and Li has shaken up his own department with meritocratic-style reforms.
Most of the preferred candidates are seen as close to both Jiang, who at 86 still commands an influential party power base, and Hu, 69, said the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It was a collective decision by Hu, Xi and Jiang, but party elders have the right of veto," one source said.
PRESSURE FOR FASTER REFORM
A list with the overall backing of such powerful figures could reduce internal tensions over the selection process, though the preferred candidates still face possible veto by other party elders, such as former premier and parliament chief Li Peng. They also need to survive some ruthless backroom politicking, where allegations of sleaze or corruption can suddenly end a candidate's run at the 11th hour.
The new committee is likely to be finalised by the outgoing Central Committee at its seventh and last plenum which convenes on November 1, a week before the start of the congress on November 8.
Xi's new administration is under pressure to accelerate the pace of economic and political reform to answer calls for more economic equality, a less dominant state sector, more developed capital markets, better living standards for migrant workers, freer speech and a crackdown on endemic corruption.
Critics of outgoing President Hu's decade in office say failure to pick up the pace of reform could lead to social unrest and pose a longer-term threat to one-party rule.
The make-up of the Standing Committee is critically important to overall policy direction because it runs by consensus, unlike executive government in many other nations where final decisions are made by the top leader.
Forging consensus could be all the more challenging given the party has been rocked this year by its biggest political scandal in three decades - the murder of a British businessman by the wife of ambitious politician Bo Xilai, who drew support from leftists critical of aspects of China's market-based reform agenda.
Bo's ouster has exposed deep rifts in the party between his leftist backers, who are nostalgic for the revolutionary era of Mao Zedong, and those who advocate faster market reforms.
The allocation of portfolio responsibilities among Standing Committee members will not be unveiled until March, when they formally take up the reins of government.
Other candidates not on the preferred list but still seen as a possibility include Guangdong's Wang Yang and Liu Yandong, 66, a state councillor with responsibility for health, education and sport, who would become the committee's first woman since 1949.
Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng, 67, is also a candidate despite his age. His impeccable communist pedigree made him a rising star until his brother, an intelligence official, defected to the United States in the mid-1980s.
(Additional reporting by Terril Jones and Sui Lee Wee; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Jonathan Thatcher)