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In this photo taken Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, right, is helped to his seat next to Chinese President Hu Jintao, left, during the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Jiang is foremost amongst a group of retired but still-influential men who wield considerable influences behind the scene in off-stage machinations to stack the lineup of Chinas new leadership to be announced late next week. The clout of these men reflects the party's traditional deference to its elders, but also its lack of transparency and failure to institutionalize its succession processes through open elections or other steps.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

To understand how China is choosing its new political leaders, just think of the election in the United States – although the winners of the two top spots were determined in advance, nobody knows exactly why they were chosen and any voting is done in secret by a select few. No attack ads, or dissent, allowed in public.

The Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China is a choreographed event that will have global reverberations.

Change in the world's second-largest economy could have a substantial impact on international trade, and there is plenty of change coming. For the first time ever, China faces a labour shortage. That's good news for the migrant workers making smartphones and bad news for their employers. China's interests in Africa and Latin America, meanwhile, are reshaping continents, while the efforts of Chinese corporations to acquire assets in Canada is forcing Ottawa to sharpen policies on foreign takeovers.

The outcome of this super-synchronized ceremony will impact your business, your government's foreign policy and your grocery bill.

The Congress

This is the Communist Party of China's official changing of the guard. Since 1972 they have taken place every five years.

Delegates will choose 371 members of the central committee, 25 members of the Politburo and seven in the party's Standing Committee – concentric circles of power within the party structure. In reality, "choose" isn't the right verb. The next president, premier and Politburo members have been known for months, and groomed for years.

This is also supposed to be an evaluation of the Party's progress report. But overt criticism of the leadership or the direction it has taken China is unlikely to mar the proceedings. The real politicking will take place behind closed doors.

Everyone watches the minutiae: Who is sitting beside whom onstage? What is the significance of the passages missing from 101-minute opening speech of outgoing paramount leader Hu Jintao? Even the order in which new Politburo members are presented can indicate who has more authority.

Representatives from China's visible minorities are decked out in traditional garb, but they're repeating the same party lines as thousands of other delegates, clad in identical red ties and sporting identical dyed black hair.

The delegates

There are "big tent" parties, and then there is the Communist Party of China, with 80 million members.

The 2,270 delegates, elected by lower-level party members, are supposed to represent the whole country. There are governors, generals, academics, migrant workers, an Olympic swimmer. But this group is overwhelmingly old Han, the dominant ethnic minority in China, and male. More significantly, they are uniformly in favour of whatever it was the President said in his opening remarks. The head of the Tibetan delegation blamed recent self-immolations on "Tibetan separatist forces and the Dalai clique."

A subsection of these delegates is supposed to represent China's "United Front," a conglomeration of democratic or "non-partisan" parties. They are either members of the CCP, or chosen by the party itself.

The president

Xi Jinping was born into Communist Party royalty, the "princeling" son of a high-ranking revolutionary general. He has been moving up in the party's ranks since 1974. A couple of big-time promotions five years ago (first secretary, then vice-president) put him on track as Mr. Hu's heir apparent.

Mr. Xi is considered more charismatic than his somewhat dour predecessor. He also appears open to westernization (he has travelled extensively; his daughter attends Harvard University). But he also has closer ties to China's military than Mr. Hu and hasn't hesitated to take jabs at the country's detractors. As he takes the helm of a newly confident China, this should make Japan and the Philippines nervous – and more likely to call on the U.S. for backup.

The paradox

China's Communist Party leaders have embraced capitalist-like economic liberalization in a system where 145,000 state-owned enterprises account for 35 per cent of the country's business activity. They push citizens to superhuman levels of achievement, as long as that doesn't include using the Internet freely.

But China is very different from the country Mr. Hu was handed 10 years ago. It is wealthier and has more pull internationally. It's also much more complicated. Four years ago, you'd have been laughed at for suggesting a protest by middle-class residents would derail a polluting chemical plant. But that happened just last month. China's Generation-Y population, born after 1985, is the first generation that didn't have to worry about where the next meal was coming from. Prosperity isn't enough for them. They want social and political freedom too.