CHINA may be only days away from unveiling its new power structure, but delegates and spectators of its 18th Communist Party Congress admit that they still have no clear idea who the leaders will be.
Asked to name those who would guide the world's second largest economy for the next five years, Yun Guangzhong, an Inner Mongolian Communist Party boss, grinned. "It is difficult to tell," he said.
But with the country's new elite ruling council set to be announced in the capital on Thursday, neither could predict confidently who would be on it.
"It's a fool's game to predict it unless you are truly on the inside," said Professor Dali L Yang, an expert in Chinese politics from the University of Chicago.
For months, speculation has been rife as to who will be on the Politburo Standing Committee -- the body that effectively decides all major Chinese policy -- and whether there will be seven or nine members, as there currently are.
Two names are seen as dead certs: Xi Jinping, who will take over as president, and Li Keqiang, who will be premier.
Dozens of combinations have emerged for the other posts.
But in a country where such decisions are reached by months of secretive horse-trading between an elite gang of power brokers, nobody is prepared to stake their mortgage on the outcome.
"It's not a game that I am willing to play," said Prof Yang.
Some rumours have been persistent. Wang Yang, the Guangdong party boss, seems out of the running after being portrayed by the western media as a "reformer". Zhang Gaoli, Tianjin's party boss, is said to be in. "He has made no noise -- sometimes that is the best way," said one well-placed source.
But Prof Yang said that only the Standing Committee's current nine members and a handful of "patriarchs", such as Jiang Zemin, the 86-year-old former president, were likely to know the answer for sure.
Asked how the process would unfold, Wang Jingqing, a vice minister of the powerful Organisation Department, the Communist Party's HR wing, gave an inscrutable reply. He said: "The result will be published and at that time you will know."(© Daily Telegraph, London)