THE stakes are so high in Thursday's leadership transition that many Chinese analysts are framing it in terms of the rise and fall of dynasties, amid accumulating social, political and economic stresses.
After a year of scandals and rising public cynicism, the administration of General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao begin the handover to a new team led by their deputies, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, at 2pm Melbourne time.
The identities of another five, or perhaps seven, leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee - the inner sanctum of power - will be gleaned by the order in which they walk on stage at the Great Hall of the People.
Analysts, including global investors from Sydney to New York, will be looking for the names of two key potential reformers, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, as they gauge the likelihood that the party can deal with growing challenges to the way it dominates political and economic life.
They will also be watching whether Mr Hu hangs on to his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, as did his irrepressible 86-year-old predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
Mr Hu's complete retirement might indicate the ascendancy of factional rivals led by Mr Jiang, analysts say.
Alternatively, it could suggest Mr Hu has begun to institutionalise the winner-takes-all norms of elite combat that have governed Chinese politics for two millennia.
''A lot of Chinese think of political development in terms of the dynastic cycle,'' said Feng Chongyi, a political scientist at the University of Technology, Sydney. ''The Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang leadership is the last opportunity for the party to start a transition to constitutional democracy to break away from the dynastic cycle.''
Dr Feng, an insider and activist, has ceased paying his party membership fees but is yet to have his membership formally revoked.
China watchers, analysts and pro-democracy advocates are fiercely debating whether Mr Xi is at heart a reformer or a stalwart product of the ruling party system.
Some contend that Mr Xi will bide his time and consolidate his power before embarking on a bold political restructuring of the country's Communist-run political system. Others see an inherently cautious operator who has no interest, and certainly no power, to dramatically reform the system.
At most, they say, he might offer token reforms to stave off dissent and maintain the party's ironclad grip on power.
About the only one in Beijing who has not offered a view of any kind is Mr Xi. Keeping with protocol, he has said little during the past months or years that would reveal even the slimmest hint of his intentions. His public speeches have largely been typical jargon laced with Communist fare, urging the party to maintain ''purity''.
Mr Xi's silence on political reform has made the portly 59-year-old a veritable walking Rorschach test, allowing observers to project onto him whatever views they choose, or perhaps hope, to see.
''Compared to Hu Jintao, Xi is more like a reformer,'' said Mao Yushi, an economist, offering one commonly heard sentiment. ''China is a country under dictatorship, but the new leadership group, I don't think, will take active measures to change the situation. It's too difficult.''
Li Datong, a journalist and reform advocate who was fired from his editor's job at China Youth Daily for pushing against official censorship, said he believed Mr Xi realised the imperative for reform but might be hamstrung by a Communist Party that is fearful of losing its power.
''The CPC is facing an unprecedented crisis of credibility, which is fatal for them,'' Li said.
''The party has already lost its credibility because of the long time of one-party dictatorship. The regime will collapse like the last few years of [the] Qing Dynasty if the new leaders don't catch this chance to reform.'' With NEW YORK TIMES