Power Brokers Agree on Leadership? (Updated)

For months, Zhongnanhai watchers have speculated over who will take over the powerful Politburo Standing Committee in the upcoming once-a-decade leadership transition, and whether the current nine members will be reduced to seven. The scandal surrounding disgraced Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai has thrown a wrench in the succession plans, as he was widely expected to take a place on the Standing Committee. Reuters is now reporting that the decision about the makeup of the Standing Committee has already been made, quoting three sources close to the top leadership, ahead of the November 8 start of the 18th Party Congress:

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.

Read more about the 5th generation of Party leaders and the 18th Party Congress, via CDT.

Updated at 21:20 PST: The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher reports that Wang Qishan may land in a nominally superior but less powerful role than the executive vice premiership for which he has previously been tipped:

While the responsibilities of China’s new leadership team have not yet been finalized — and are not expected to be announced until the end of the Party Congress — the emerging consensus is that Mr. Wang is likely to be promoted to a position on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s top decision-making body, but not to have day-to-day control of the bureaucracy that oversees China’s still largely state-driven economy.

Insiders say they now expect that economic policy will be left mostly in the hands of Li Keqiang, who is set to replace Wen Jiabao as prime minister next year. Mr. Li, 57, is a highly educated official with an almost professorial style who is said to read voluminous economic policy reports in often minute detail.

[…] One [insider] said that there had been a push in late summer by some party elders for Mr. Wang to be named prime minister instead of Mr. Li. But that push appears not only to have fallen short but possibly backfired by hurting relations between them, the insider said.