There are, in 2012, two ways a superpower can choose its leaders. You can have the candidates travel around the country, trying to outspend and outshout their rivals in an effort to win citizens' votes. Or you can have the decision-makers huddle at a beach resort to sort everything out in private.
The Communist Party of China went through the latter ritual earlier this month, as senior figures gathered under tight security in the scenic coastal town of Beidaihe, also known as a bird-watching paradise.
For Politburo watchers, there's little question who China's next leader will be. The current vice-president, Xi Jinping, has already been anointed President Hu Jintao's successor. A politician who has nurtured a reputation for clean governance – but whose family has been dogged by allegations of amassing huge wealth – Mr. Xi will start taking over the levers of power this fall.
The other near-certainty is that Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, a former farmer and economics expert, will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao in the months ahead.
The subject of negotiations at the Beidaihe conclave was to determine who else will join Mr. Xi and Mr. Li on the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo. Observers are anxious to see which faction – reformers or conservatives; Mr. Hu's loyalists or those of former president Jiang Zemin – will emerge holding the balance of power.
It's a gathering which is as critical as it is secretive. While Mr. Xi and Mr. Li will remain, the other seven members of the nine-man Standing Committee are set to retire, meaning a new roster will have the chance to set China's direction for the decade to come.
The only signal that the Beidaihe conclave was under way was a series of reports on the Xinhua news wire placing Mr. Xi and other leaders at the resort town in recent days, although ostensibly for other meetings. On Wednesday, Xinhua reported that Mr. Wen was touring Zhejiang province, a hint that more than a week of meetings in Beidaihe had come to an end.
Residents had noticed additional security, including random stops and identification checks. "My father was flying his kite in [nearby] Nandaihe this weekend, but was stopped by some armed police who told him the leaders were currently meeting in Beidaihe and they were worried the kite might disturb them," one local resident posted on a microblog.
The tradition of Chinese leaders gathering at Beidaihe dates back to the time of Mao Zedong, who loved to swim in the waters of Bohai Bay and wrote a poem entitled Beidaihe. Deng Xiaoping was photographed swimming in the same waters just months after he ordered the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square.
The decisions made in Beidaihe won't be revealed until some time this fall, when the Communist Party holds its 18th national congress in Beijing. At its conclusion, Mr. Xi will enter the Great Hall of the People flanked by the rest of the new Standing Committee of the Politburo, giving the outside world its first glimpse of China's new power structure.
The 18th party congress, where the committee will be introduced, is expected to take place in October. However, that date could be moved up, if it's politically expedient – or back, if the new Politburo lineup isn't settled.
The selection process has been turned on its head this year by the fall of Bo Xilai, the flamboyant party boss of Chongqing. Once seen as a sure bet to join the Standing Committee this year, Mr. Bo has not been seen in public since he was purged from the party leadership in March amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power. There are rumours he is being held under house arrest in Beidaihe, which is 285 kilometres east of Beijing.
The Communist Party is likely anxious to see the end of the scandal, which earlier this month saw Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, confess in court to the murder of a British businessman with ties to the family. (She has not yet been sentenced.)
China-watchers are poring over the People's Daily this week, looking for hints as to which politicians are on the verge of rising to the top. Overseas Chinese websites have reported there is a list of 16 finalists for a Standing Committee spot being circulated among the leadership.
At a press conference in Beijing this week, even a top official professed to be in the dark about the process. Wang Jingqing, who, as deputy head of the Communist Party's powerful Organization Department, would presumably be in the loop, said only that the national congress would take place in the second half of this year.
Pressed about a rumour that there would be seven members, rather than nine, on the next Standing Committee, Mr. Wang had nothing to offer. "Not even I know," he said.