The Communist Party of China is convening a congress today that will usher in a once-in-a-decade leadership change.
The seven-day meeting is expected to endorse Xi Jinping as China's new leader, replacing President Hu Jintao, while Li Keqiang will take over from Wen Jiabao as premier.
The makeup of the rest of the cabinet, the Politburo Standing Committee, remains a closely guarded secret.
The outgoing president is expected to deliver a speech today that will to tout the country's economic advances over the past decade, while acknowledging that China still faces many difficulties.
Xi Jinping, 59, is the son of reformist former vice premier and parliament vice-chairman Xi Zhongxun, making him a "princeling", one of the privileged sons and daughters of China's incumbent, retired or late leaders.
He grew up among the party elite and then watched his father purged from power before the Cultural Revolution, when Mr Xi himself spent years in the poverty-stricken countryside before scrambling to university and then power.
Considered a cautious reformer, Mr Xi has long been marked out as the likely successor to President Hu.
Married to a famous singer and briefly in charge of Shanghai, China's richest and most glamorous city, Mr Xi has crafted a low-key, sometimes bluff political style.
He has complained of officials' speeches and writings being clogged with party jargon and demanded more plain speaking.
In September, Mr Xi unsettled Chinese people and the foreign business community alike when he vanished from public without explanation for about two weeks, prompting feverish rumours of serious illness and a troubled succession.
Sources said Mr Xi hurt his back while swimming and that he had been obeying doctors' orders to get bed rest and undergo physiotherapy.
Mr Xi went to work in the poor northwest Chinese countryside as a "sent-down youth" during the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and became a rural commune official.
He studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, an elite school where Hu also studied. Mr Xi later gained a doctorate in Marxist theory from Tsinghua.
The leader-in-waiting shot to fame in the early 1980s as party boss of a rural county in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing.
He had rare access to then national party chief Hu Yaobang in the leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, west of the Forbidden City.
A native of the remote, inland province of Shaanxi, home of the terracotta warriors, Xi was promoted to governor of the southeastern province of Fujian in August 1999 after a string of provincial officials were caught up in a graft dragnet.
In March 2007, Mr Xi secured the top job in China's commercial capital, Shanghai, when his predecessor, Chen Liangyu, was caught up in another huge corruption case.
Mr Xi held that post until October 2007 when he was promoted to the party's Standing Committee - the ruling inner-circle.
He is married to Peng Liyuan, a renowned singer who was once arguably more popular in China than her husband, until the party began ordering her to keep a low profile as her husband moved up the ranks.
Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang stands out for his casual and disarming command of the English language.
Mr Li's English were learned as a part of a surprisingly liberal university education.
Over three decades ago, he entered prestigious Peking University, a member of the storied "class of '77" who passed the first higher education entrance exams held after Mao Zedong's convulsive Cultural Revolution, which had effectively put university education on hold.
More than any other Chinese party leader until now, Mr Li, 57, was immersed in the intellectual and political ferment of the following decade of reform under Deng Xiaoping, which ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that were crushed by troops.
As a student at Peking University, Mr Li befriended ardent pro-democracy advocates, some of whom later became outright challengers to party control. His friends included activists who went into exile after the June 1989 crackdown.
He was caught up in the fervour of political and economic reform, helping translate The Due Process of Law by Lord Denning, the famed English jurist, into Chinese.
Mr Li arrived at university in early 1978 from Anhui province in eastern China, a poor farming country where his father was an official and where he was sent to toil in the fields during the Cultural Revolution.
He chose law, a discipline silenced for years as a reactionary pursuit and in the late 1970s still steeped in Soviet-inspired doctrines.
In a brief memoir of his time at university, Mr Li paid tribute to Gong Xiangrui, one of the few Chinese law professors schooled in the West to survive Mao's purges, and recalled the heady atmosphere of the time.
"I was a student at Peking University for close to a decade, while a so-called 'knowledge explosion' was rapidly expanding," he wrote in an essay published in a 2008 book.
"I was searching for not just knowledge, but also to mould a temperament, to cultivate a scholarly outlook."
But while classmates headed off to policy research, independent activism and even outright dissent, Mr Li struck a more cautious course, abandoning ideas of study abroad and climbing the Communist Party's Youth League, then a reformist-tinged ladder to higher office.
He rose in the Youth League while completing a master's degree in law and then an economics doctorate under Professor Li Yining, a well-known advocate of market reforms.
In 1998, he was sent to Henan province, a poor and restless belt of rural central China, rising to become party secretary for two years. In late 2004, he was made party chief of Liaoning, a rustbelt province striving to attract investment and reinvent itself as a modern industrial heartland.
He was named to the powerful nine-member party Standing Committee in 2007.
Mr Li's patron, President Hu Jintao, began his tenure as leader with promises of respecting the law and constitution. But his government has since overseen a crackdown on dissent that resorted to widespread extra-judicial detentions.
Today, Li appears more at ease in small groups than in public. Businessmen and academics say they have been impressed with his diligent studies of policy.
After nearly a decade in power, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao are due to retire from their party posts at the party congress which opens on Thursday and from the presidency and premiership in 2013.
Li's ascent will mark an extraordinary rise for a man who as a youth worked on a commune in Anhui's Fengyang County - notoriously poor even for Mao's time and one of the first places to quietly revive private bonuses in farming in the late 1970s. By the time he left, Li was a Communist Party member and secretary of his production brigade.
In spite of his liberal past, analysts say Li's elevation is unlikely to bring much change on the political front, where reforms would require more unified support for any serious change.