By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's year of political intrigue is likely to spring a few more surprises yet, as the ruling Communist Party tries to pull off a smooth leadership change next month against a backdrop of purges, plots and prison sentences.
Just weeks away from the once-in-a-decade succession, the full make-up of China's next leadership and its agenda are unknown and still being negotiated in secret - in contrast to the very public leadership battle underway in the United States.
One of the few things known with almost total certainty is that Vice President Xi Jinping will take over as party leader at the congress which opens November 8, leaving dozens of senior positions to be fought over in the political backrooms. Xi then becomes president in March at the annual meeting of parliament.
China's three most powerful men - former President Jiang Zemin, current President Hu Jintao and Hu's anointed successor, Xi - have tried to minimize any factional in-fighting over the new line-up by coming together to agree a preferred list of candidates for the party's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, sources said.
But China experts say their plan could still be thwarted.
"I think we will have surprises this time ... Negotiation is a very complicated process," said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington.
"Outsiders have no idea. We probably have only 20 percent of an idea of what's going on. There will be some last-minute changes, possibly even to the Standing Committee."
The preferred list drawn up by Jiang, Hu and Xi has already delivered a major surprise, with the omission of a top contender, Wang Yang, 57, party boss of southern Guangdong province and viewed by many in the West as a political reformer.
His omission could, in turn, have been linked indirectly to the earlier fall of another one-time contender for the Standing Committee, Bo Xilai, a high-flying politician who was ousted this year in China's biggest political scandal in two decades.
Bo was purged after allegations emerged that his wife had murdered a British businessman - she was given a suspended death sentence in August - but he remains a favorite among party leftists who want to slow the pace of market-based reforms.
China experts suspect Jiang, Hu and Xi did not want to further provoke the left by backing Wang.
"Some people say he's Bo Xilai on the right - Bo Xilai is on the left and he's the counterparty on the right - and that the party is equally worried of this person," said Wang Zhengxu, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies in Britain.
However, the process of choosing the standing committee means Jiang, Hu and Xi may not get their way entirely.
Front-runners can fall at the final hurdle if, during the congress, delegates fail to elect them as one of the 200-odd full members of the Central Committee, the largest of the party's elite power-making bodies, or if party elders and current Standing Committee members veto them.
The Central Committee has never voted down a Standing Committee front-runner but it famously shot down a candidate to the wider Politburo in 1987, when Deng Liqun, an unpopular conservative ideologue, failed to win a Central Committee seat.
The new Standing Committee - which sources say will be cut to seven from nine currently - is hammered out in horse-trading between past, present and future leaders anxious to preserve political power and protect their networks.
To avoid surprises, the party held a straw poll earlier this year to informally measure the popularity of the candidates for the Politburo and Standing Committee. The results are unknown.
About 70 percent of the current leadership will be replaced at the congress, involving the party, the military and the state, said Cheng of the Brookings Institution. Other key roles, such as the central bank governor, will also likely be decided.
The new Standing Committee will not be made public until the end of the congress, when the members will file out from behind a screen in Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People.
The backroom politicking can be ruthless, and some experts still rate Wang Yang a chance to join Xi's top table, and take up the reformist mantle of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao.
"I do think Wen Jiabao might want to support him," said Wang of the University of Nottingham.
If he does not get in this time, Wang Yang could move to Beijing to serve as a vice-premier, Wang Zhengxu added.
Wang Yang, 57, is young enough to make another run at the Standing Committee at the 2017 congress, said Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.
At this point, among the greatest possible upsets at next month's congress would be the failure of Vice Premier Wang Qishan, 64, a darling of foreign investors who runs the finance portfolio, and Li Yuanchao, 61, who heads the party's powerful organization department, to make the Standing Committee.
Both men appear on the list backed by Jiang, Hu and Xi, as well as nearly all the lists that have circulated on Chinese websites speculating about the final line-up.
Outgoing Standing Committee members can nominate their successors while party elders such as ex-premier and parliament chief Li Peng have veto power over candidates. However, Nottingham's Wang said one committee member may be decided by election at next month's congress, possibly for the first time.
That would be in keeping with the party's tentative steps toward more internal democracy since the late 1980s.
For the Central Committee, ballots will contain at least 5 percent more names of candidates than seats. Those who fail to get elected can run for election the next day as alternate Central Committee members, who have no voting rights and are not eligible to join the Standing Committee.
More than 2,000 delegates to the congress will elect 200-odd full members of the Central Committee.
The Central Committee then holds elections to choose the Politburo, Standing Committee, Central Military Commission and the party's anti-corruption body, though the outcomes have already been decided at this point by the party's power-brokers.
The real threat for a candidate is not in the internal elections, but in the dirty politics that can precede them.
In September, Ling Jihua, a close ally of Hu who had been eyeing a promotion to the Politburo and to become head of the party's organization department, was demoted after press reports that his son was involved in a fatal crash involving a luxury sports car in Beijing.
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Mark Bendeich)