As the apex of power in the globe's second-largest economy, the committee's decisions will affect not only the region but also much of the planet. Yet despite much informed analysis in the run-up to the once-a-decade transition in top national leadership, the long-term intentions of the cloistered Communist Party leaders are anyone's guess. The unveiling of China's new rulers will be a reminder that nowhere else today is so much geopolitical strength combined with such thick secrecy.
Not even the size of the committee is certain. It will be either seven or nine members, depending on backroom negotiations thought to be still ongoing. Only two so far appear confirmed: Vice President Xi Jinping, 59, will be presented to the West as China's incoming president, though his mightier title will be general secretary of the Communist Party; now-Vice Premier Li Keqiang, 57, will join him as premier.
The other members are expected to be revealed after a weeklong assembly that begins Thursday, known officially as the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The standing committee will confront a daunting list of challenges, including:
? Corruption, which is viewed as having run rampant throughout the ranks of officialdom.
? A growing gap between the country's privileged elite and its vast population, which leads to deeply rooted resentment.
? Increasing worries about the possibility of a slowdown in the nation's economy that could cut into employment. For a regime intensely preoccupied with social stability, that could spell trouble.
? Staggering environmental woes, which have been emphasized by large-scale demonstrations this year against chemical plants in local communities.
It's far from clear that the leadership will push in major new directions, notwithstanding the festering issues.
The standing committee rules by consensus, and Xi will have a hard time steering party power sharply on those or other issues. As with the other potential committee members, Xi has spent much of his life in the ranks of the Communist Party, an organization made nervous by its own historical turmoil about change that's too big or too sudden.
"There is nothing in Xi's background to suggest that thinking deeply about or experimenting with political reform has been a priority," Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, wrote in an email. "Throughout his career, he seems to have been far more focused on developing the economy in a smart and rational manner."
If there is to be transformation, many observers feel it will come in the economic sphere. The entrenched power of large state-owned enterprises is widely seen as having stifled moves to diversify the economy. Breaking up their monopolies would be difficult, however, and it's not clear to what extent the enterprises' interests are intertwined with those of senior officials or members of their inner circles.
Xi is considered a possible reformer, but so was President Hu Jintao when he came into office. After a decade of the Hu administration, however, that characterization seems misguided, with domestic repression and corruption rife. Whether the same will be true for Xi remains unknown.
Many analysts point to a disconnect between what Western ears hear when Chinese leadership speaks about "reform" and what is actually meant.
"Any reformers in the Chinese context, they are not going to introduce multiparty elections. They are not going to legalize opposition parties," said Wang Zhengxu, the deputy director of the China Policy Institute at England's University of Nottingham. "But if you talk about reformers who are willing to try local elections, who are willing to give more freedom to civil society groups, who are willing to enforce the rules to force ? officials to be more accountable, you may be able to find a few."
Wang, speaking by phone, added, "Their objectives are to make the government work better, not to reduce the monopoly of power of the party."