BEIJING -- To outside observers, the move may appear to be little more than bureaucratic reshuffling: trim two seats from the nine-member body that governs China by consensus at the pinnacle of the Communist Party.
But the proposal by Chinese leaders to downsize the body, the Politburo Standing Committee, offers one of the clearest windows available into the priorities of the party and the mechanics of power-sharing and factional struggles as the leadership transition nears its climax at a weeklong congress scheduled to open Nov. 8.
The deliberations have taken place in private, in guarded compounds in Beijing and beachside villas east of the capital, but interviews with political insiders paint a portrait of party leaders pushing the change to maximize their holds on power while trying to steer the top echelons of the party away from the sclerosis and cronyism that has set in as more interests have become represented at the top.
Party insiders and political analysts say party leaders, including Hu Jintao, the current party chief and president, and Xi Jinping, his designated successor, are at the moment sticking to an earlier decision to shrink the committee to seven seats, which was the number before 2002, when the committee was expanded in last-minute deal-making before that year's party congress.
"All the signs and information indicate that this time the standing committee will have seven members," said Chen Ziming, a well-connected political commentator in Beijing who was imprisoned after the 1989 pro-democracy protests. "I think the goal is to increase the efficiency and unity at the top level. Everything is decided in meetings, and with fewer people it's easier to reach decisions."
The committee is a group of aging men with dyed hair and dark suits who make all major decisions about the economy, foreign policy and other issues. Their meetings are not publicized in the state news media. The party chief often presides, but they operate by consensus, which means decisions are generally made only when the members reach agreement.
They also must solicit the input of retired members, now more than a dozen, who at times exert considerable influence, most of all Mr. Hu's 86-year-old predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Mr. Jiang and other elders are deeply engaged in the backstage negotiations to appoint the next generation of leaders.
Members of the committee represent different patronage networks and hold different portfolios -- security, propaganda, the economy and so on -- which can result in competing interests. Business lobbies are represented informally on the committee, and the members often have longstanding ties to China's powerful state-owned enterprises; for example, the current chief of domestic security, Zhou Yongkang, once managed a state-owned oil company and is known to be a defender of the oil industry.
"Each of the nine wants to protect his patch," said a political analyst connected to central party officials.
Alice L. Miller, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Hoover Institution, said at a recent talk in Washington that a shrinking of the committee represents an attempt by the party to address shortcomings. "The most compelling one is that there seems to be a trend in policy stagnation," she said, "an inability to arrive at decisions collectively within the standing committee that I think shows up in a number of different ways."
Yet the move to trim the committee, many experts argue, has exacerbated factional wrangling over its incoming membership. Mr. Xi and Li Keqiang, pegged to be the next prime minister, are virtually guaranteed seats. Other favorites now are Zhang Dejiang, a vice prime minister and party secretary of Chongqing; Wang Qishan, another vice prime minister; Zhang Gaoli, party chief of Tianjin; and Liu Yunshan, director of the propaganda bureau. With that lineup, the remaining seat is expected to go to either Li Yuanchao, head of the Organization Department, or Yu Zhengsheng, party chief of Shanghai. Both had been strong contenders until recent weeks, when word spread that either could be excluded.
The idea of shrinking the committee was first laid out in discussions in the summer of 2011, but it did not emerge as a plan until this year, said a central government media official with ties to "princeling" families from the Communist aristocracy of revolutionary leaders and their descendants.
"The entire top echelon came to a unified viewpoint on this general direction, including former standing committee members," he said. "The consensus was that greater unity and efficiency was needed at the top."
He and others said that the case of Bo Xilai, who was a controversial contender for a standing committee seat even before he was purged in a scandal last spring, also became a rationale for shrinking the body, in part to counter deepening divisions within the party. "If everyone was not singing a different tune, there's no way that Bo Xilai could have emerged as he did," said Li Weidong, another well-connected scholar.
Another important factor was the feeling among many party officials that the security apparatus has grown too powerful, particularly in the past five years under Mr. Zhou. Some also contend that Mr. Bo, in turn, was Mr. Zhou's preferred successor.
As part of the contraction, the party commission post now occupied by Mr. Zhou would be downgraded from the standing committee to the Politburo level, with the portfolio expected to be given to a committee member with other responsibilities. The same could happen to the propaganda portfolio.
Word that the body could be trimmed to seven members began to spread through party circles at around the time party authorities polled top officials and elders in May on their picks for the next committee.
Mr. Xi and Mr. Hu may both be pushing for the downsizing of the committee, but they have different interests in mind, say party insiders. A smaller committee could, at least in theory, give either man more leverage and authority. And either could be better positioned to maneuver their allies and protégés into top seats at the next congress five years from now, halfway through Mr. Xi's likely decade-long tenure, when several members of the committee would be expected to retire.
Mr. Hu's power appears to have been hampered in the past decade by the fact that the committee was heavy with leaders who owe their promotions to his predecessor Mr. Jiang, Mr. Xi among them. Many party insiders blame factional tensions for contributing to Mr. Hu's rigid aversion to promoting bold policies. Many of the current favorites for the standing committee are seen as protégés of Mr. Jiang, as well as likely allies of Mr. Xi.
Despite China's economic growth of the past decade, there is now a strong sense among policy makers and intellectuals that the nation lost an opportunity to strengthen its economy and reinvigorate its political system. Mr. Xi is hearing a chorus of calls from policy advisers, academics and economists to rekindle the kind of liberalization that languished under Mr. Hu. But if he were to pursue that, he would confront an enormous challenge in forging consensus among elders, peers and other powerful interests.
Before Mr. Hu ascended to party chief in late 2002, he favored a seven-member committee, but he and Mr. Jiang failed to agree on the lineup. That resulted in Mr. Hu having to settle for a nine-member committee stacked with more of Mr. Jiang's allies, said Mr. Chen, the political analyst.
Before that, committee seats had generally ranged from 5 to 7, though it reached 11 in 1966. Personal power struggles have played decisive roles before in determining the committee size. In 1987, party leaders had agreed to expand the committee to seven from five. But the top leader, Deng Xiaoping, was forced to scrap the plan after conservative elders sprang last-minute objections to two committee candidates, according to an account in a memoir by Zhao Ziyang, the party chief ousted in 1989.
The plan to shrink the committee this year could still founder if leaders fail to agree on who should be promoted to a smaller body. The end result could be a retention of the nine-member committee to accommodate all the interests.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.