HONG KONG - A push by Chinese President Hu Jintao to shrink the size of the nation's nine-member leadership body, as revealed by Reuters this week, could have far-reaching implications for his anointed successor and for future economic and political reform.
Outgoing leaders in China can cast a long shadow, and Hu's desire to cut the politburo standing committee to seven in the twilight of his decade-old administration has fuelled talk that he wants his allies to influence the next one to preserve his legacy.
Sources familiar with the party's deliberations say Hu is calculating that his party allies would have a better chance of becoming the single biggest voice in a smaller version of the grouping, which typically calls the shots by consensus.
Hu and his standing committee are due to step down in March after a new line-up, almost certain to be headed by current Vice President Xi Jinping, is unveiled this year - though sources familiar with party deliberations say debate over the size of the committee could push the announcement to as late as January.
Delay would add to the unusual uncertainty that has already begun to creep into Chinese politics, which has been dogged this year by its biggest political scandal in two decades.
Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based China expert, said Hu appeared to be trying to stack more allies from his Communist Youth League on the next committee, given they seemed to have been reserved at least three seats in the new line-up anyway.
If Hu's camp secures three seats in a standing committee of seven, it would be guaranteed a strong voice because none of the other factional interests is seen likely to hold more.
"Hu Jintao's interest is to remain more influential behind the curtain after the party congress," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at Hong Kong Baptist University.
It is unclear, though, what the 69-year-old Hu's younger and less cautious successor, Xi, thinks of his predecessor's informal proposal: the two men, though different by nature and communist upbringing, are not thought to be at odds politically.
It could be that Xi, 58, would actually prefer a more compact standing committee, even at the risk that Hu's allies become the most influential grouping under the new man's watch.
"A smaller group will be much easier to make policies. Larger groups have more diverse opinions, and it's harder to have consensus," said Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.
In any case, experts say, Xi is under pressure to continue faster in the direction of Hu's reform agenda, not back-track on it, and he will have 10 years to stamp his authority on the world's second-largest economy and emerging military superpower.
If Hu casts a shadow, Xi has plenty of time and the forceful personality required to emerge from it, experts say.
With a standing committee of seven, Xi would at least have a better chance to forge a consensus in response to growing pressures for China to shift away from export-led growth and to grant its citizens more political freedoms.
Indeed, the bigger headache for Xi may be that Hu's gambit faces opposition from rival leaders pushing instead to expand the standing committee to 11, to make room for their own protégées in the inner sanctum, sources have said. Such an expansion would make it the biggest committee since 1966.
"Xi Jinping may be a stronger personality and a stronger leader (than Hu)," said Hong Kong Baptist University's Cabestan.
"Maybe he doesn't want to have so many people around him ... breathing down his neck, trying to have a say in any decision."
The debate over size and makeup of the committee has led the party to consider whether to delay by a few months its upcoming five-yearly congress, where the new president, premier and rest of the top team will be announced, the sources say.
Originally scheduled for September or October, it may be delayed to between November and January, they say.
So far only Xi and Li Keqiang, who is on track to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao, are considered certain to be confirmed on the committee. The remaining seats are still uncertain.
The prospect of a delay has unnerved global financial markets, whose perception of Chinese politics as a well-oiled machine has already been rocked by a scandal that ended the hopes of one major contender for the standing committee, ambitious politician Bo Xilai.
If factional interests successfully lobby in coming months to expand the standing committee to 11, that could frustrate Xi's efforts to push through bold reforms before he even starts.
But Xi's hands may be tied in the very debate that could help shape his reign. As the consensus choice as China's next leader, he is unlikely to risk that broad party support by throwing his weight around on the issue.
Instead, outgoing leaders such as Hu are seen as being more influential in resolving the question of the committee's size.
However, with just months to go as party chief, Hu may just do what he's done for nearly a decade: be cautious, compromise and build consensus - and leave Xi with a nine-member standing committee full of rivals and an undermined mandate for reform.
Since taking over the party in 2002, Hu has pursued cautious but significant economic and financial reforms which have helped China overtake Japan as the world's second biggest economy and put it on a trajectory to surpass the United States.
But by the government's own admission, China is running out of time to tackle important reforms, including freeing up land ownership and reining in the coddled state-owned sector.
Under his rule, Hu was quiet on the question of serious political reform, instead pressing the need for social stability and building a massive domestic security force to maintain it.
It is still unclear if Xi will be any bolder on that front.
TWO MAIN CAMPS
Experts see two main leadership camps in Beijing: those who came up through Hu's Communist Youth League and the so-called "princelings" - Communist aristocrats like Xi and Bo whose parents were senior officials or revolutionaries.
Whether they are factions with a unified ideology is a matter of debate, since some of those expected to rise are in both camps. But the jockeying for spots on the next standing committee has begun and will intensify heading into July and August, when the leaders have traditionally hammered out final arrangements while in holiday villas in coastal Beidaihe.
Those delicate negotiations have intensified with the ouster of the ambitious Bo, previously regarded as a strong contender for a seat. The party sacked Bo as leader of China's biggest municipality, Chongqing, in March and suspended him from the politburo last month after his wife emerged as chief suspect in the poisoning of a British expatriate businessman, Neil Heywood.
The wishes of Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, 85, also loom over who and how many will sit at the top table.
Jiang's faction, the so-called Shanghai Gang, has been marginalised but he has made rare public appearances recently that experts see as signs he wants to play some role in the coming transition. Jiang has yet to signal a preference.
Jiang's own tactic for casting a shadow was to retain his powerful position as Central Military Commission chairman for two years after stepping down to make way for Hu.
That may yet be a route that Hu chooses as well.