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A paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of the Great Hall of the People, the venue of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, Nov. 8, 2012.

Petar Kujundzic/REUTERS

The 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China, known locally as just the "18th Big," started out like what it pretends to be: the meeting of a modern political movement, with delegates filing into the Great Hall of the People to hear a state-of-the-nation address from the outgoing leader before they set about the business of choosing a new one.

It could have been a convention of the Conservative Party of Canada, or the U.S. Republicans or Democrats. Hu Jintao's speech to the 2,270 assembled delegates was shown on live television, and reporters from around the world conducted interviews and live broadcasts from the edge of Tiananmen Square.

But now, with just days to go before the world finds out which veteran Communists will make up the new line-up of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, the pretense of openness is gone. The 18th Big is now more like a papal conclave than a political convention, although the Communist delegates don't yet have the voting power that the cardinals of the Vatican gained in the 11th century.

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Instead of an election, most Communist delegates are left waiting to lend their unqualified approval to a new list of seven or nine men being hammered out via months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between rival factions headed by Mr. Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who at 86 years old still wields wide influence within the party.

We'll only find out who won that power struggle on Thursday, when the new Standing Committee lineup will take the stage in the Great Hall of the People to be photographed by the world's media.

Despite the arcane process, the stakes for China and the world could hardly be higher. The new Standing Committee will have the opportunity to shape this rising superpower for the next decade. It will decide whether China engages in further political and economic reforms, or whether it instead tightens state control. It will choose a path of confrontation or co-existence with its neighbours, many of whom are increasingly nervous about what they see rising in Beijing.

The ultimate winner has been known for five years now, since the end of the 17th Big. Vice-President Xi Jinping will be introduced on Thursday as the new general secretary of the Communist Party and thus head of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. He'll be joined by Li Keqiang, China's next premier and the only other member of the current Standing Committee young enough to avoid mandatory retirement (the cut-off line is 67 years old at the start of the five-year term – Mr. Xi is 59, Mr. Li is 57).

The rest of the list is not yet known, although Beijing's (few) wagging tongues now believe that Mr. Jiang's faction will emerge with the upper hand on Thursday. That would mean a Standing Committee stacked with "princelings" – the sons of the Communist old guard – many of whom are believed to favour greater state control over the economy, no substantive political reforms, and a more assertive China on the world stage.

Little is known about the politics of Mr. Xi, who was chosen as a compromise candidate between the factions, so which direction he leads China will likely depend heavily on who else joins him Standing Committee of the Politburo.

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