BEIJING — As if any reminder were needed, delegates to China's ceremonial parliament were repeatedly told in no uncertain terms this week what job No. 1 is: "Follow the leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core."
The exhortation carries added weight as China moves toward its most important political event in five years, the ruling Communist Party's 19th National Congress. The event, this fall, is expected to usher in a second five-year term as general secretary for Xi — China's most powerful leader in decades — along with a major infusion of new blood into the party's governing bodies.
Key among those is the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power led by Xi. All but two of its seven members are expected to step down, according to recent practice, and their replacements will define Xi's rule over the next five years, and possibly beyond.
While there's little blue sky between the party elites in terms of policies and ideology, the team that Xi assembles could point toward whether China is headed toward an even more authoritarian future or one of greater balance between rivals.
"Many in the establishment are uncomfortable with Xi coming out as a real strongman," said Steve Tsang, a long-time China watcher who directs the China Institute at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "The stakes are therefore very high."
Impacting on the process are China's slowing economic growth, growing labour and environmental unrest, and the push-pull between the further opening up the economy and protecting major state industries and workers.
Then there's the Trump factor. President Donald Trump's gospel of economic nationalism has introduced new uncertainty into the crucial trading relationship between the sides, while his provocative statements regarding Taiwan, the South China Sea and China's relations with North Korea have set Beijing on edge.
Under those circumstances, the desire for an experienced, steady hand on the tiller could work to Xi's advantage, says Boston University China expert Joseph Fewsmith.
Tsang agreed: "What is clear is that Xi cannot afford to appear to be weak in the face of Trump."
While China's insular political system gives little away, analysts will begin looking in earnest for signs of the prevailing winds after next week's conclusion of the 10-day annual legislative session. New appointments and policy declarations may offer clues, along with the amount of coverage state media devote to key individuals.
Xi, 63, has already consolidated his hold on the party, government and military beyond that attained by either of his last two predecessors. In addition, he's taken on the chairmanships of a half-dozen party small groups that direct policy over areas from foreign policy to internet security, and also heads the newly formed National Security Committee and military Joint Operations Command.
Crucially, he last year took on the mantle of "core" of the leadership, furthering a cult of personality that harkens back to the era of communist China's founder Mao Zedong.
The accumulation of titles and Xi's relative youth have stoked speculation that he will seek to retain power beyond the two five-year terms held by his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. But to do so would require him to either placate or defeat rivals grouped around Hu and current Premier Li Keqiang, the party's No. 2 official.
The most likely outcome, say Tsang and other scholars, is "some sort of compromise."
Xi may also seek to retain key ally Wang Qishan, a renowned administrator who has spearheaded Xi's signature anti-corruption drive.
Also up for grabs are the memberships of the 25-member Politburo and the 200-plus member Central Committee, about 70 per cent of whose members are due to retire.
Predictions are made more difficult because, rather than hard and fast rules, the criteria and procedures for selecting new leaders are based on consensus and precedent that have helped "routinize competition," according to Fewsmith. While the country's constitution limits the president to two terms, the party constitution makes no such stipulations. Even the size of the Politburo Standing Committee can fluctuate, shrinking from nine to seven five years ago.
A total of 12 members of the Politburo are considered candidates to join Xi and Li on the Standing Committee, likely including their future successors. Chief among them are Hu Chunhua, the party secretary in the wealthy southern manufacturing centre of Guangdong province, and Sun Zhengcai, who heads up the western mega-city of Chongqing. Dark horse candidates include Xi's protégé Chen Min'er, the party secretary of the southern region of Guizhou.
Still, Xi will likely take his time making a decision, said Cheng Li, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington D.C.
"There's a 30 per cent chance that he'll appoint a clear successor but more likely it will remain more ambiguous than that," Li said, adding Xi won't settle on a person until he's convinced the candidate is capable, won't undermine his legacy and has the support of the party rank-and-file.
A pair of powerful party bureaucrats seen as trusted Xi advisers — Li Zhanshu and Wang Huning — are believed to have the inside track for Standing Committee membership, while propaganda czar Liu Qibao, Vice Premier Wang Yang and Shanghai party boss Han Zheng are also considered leading contenders.
"My assumption is that Xi Jinping will emerge as even stronger following the party congress, so this is more about picking his team," Fewsmith said.
The outcome should have an impact on how strong of a mandate Xi has to pursue his agenda of reforming the economy and government institutions, as well as extending his yearslong crackdown on official corruption that is as popular with the public as it is loathed by bureaucrats.
A clearer picture may emerge after informal summer meetings at the beach resort of Beidaihe east of Beijing, but the final lineup likely won't come until the actual congress is held, the experts say. While Chinese politics can seem like a Byzantine power struggle, the results are significant for the country's direction, they say.
"Xi is clearly interested in and keen to leave his marks and make changes," said Fewsmith, of Boston University. "I don't think he made himself 'chairman of everything' just for the sake of it."
Christopher Bodeen, The Associated Press