Naval power ... military officers onboard China's aircraft carrier, Liaoning. Photo: AP
AMERICA, China's obsession, the measure of the country's achievement and the mirror in which the Chinese Communist Party defines itself. ''Since the very early days of the People's Republic of China, it has been a constant and strong belief that the US has sinister designs to sabotage the Communist leadership and turn China into its vassal state,'' as Wang Jisi, the dean of international relations at Peking University, explained in a candid report for the Brookings Institution this year. Despite the collective leadership paranoia, however, the incoming president and premier have each sent their daughters to study in the US.
BO XILAI is - or was - the maverick princeling and great red hope who had his sights set on a top leadership position. His spectacular demise has shaken the lead-up to next month's leadership transition. For all his now-evident flaws, Bo was the first to grasp that China's elite politics had entered a new era of political contestation. He also had uncommon political courage. As a mere provincial leader he managed to set a national agenda by draping himself in neo-Maoist iconography and waging war against corruption, inequality and mafia-state collusion. Bo's empire in Chongqing began to crumble after his wife poisoned an English family friend and Bo's police chief - who had egged her on - told the Americans about it. Last month the Politburo decided to send Bo through a criminal process that will probably see him spend most of the rest of his life in jail.
CONGRESS - the 18th since the party was founded by the fledgling Soviets in 1921 - will anoint China's new generation of leaders in a week-long session starting on November 8. Such party congresses take place every five years and, according to convention, a full leadership transition takes place every 10 years. In theory about 2200 delegates, representing 83 million party members, will ''elect'' 200 members and 170 alternate members to the new Central Committee which will in turn convene its first ''plenum'' on November 15. They will then ''elect'' 25 members to the Politburo and, most crucially, an inner sanctum of (probably) seven men who will form the Politburo Standing Committee. The world won't be sure of their identities until they walk out in hierarchical order behind the new general secretary, Xi Jinping.
The maverick princeling and great red hope ... Bo Xilai. Photo: AFP
DISAPPEARED is a word that has been given a new passive form in the satirical language of the Chinese internet - as in ''the artist Ai Weiwei has been disappeared'' - following a surge in extra-judicial abductions of dissidents and lawyers. Last month Xi managed to make himself ''disappear'' for a fortnight. His absence remains unexplained, and speculation ranges from health problems to political gamesmanship.
ECONOMY is seen as the key to the compact that has thus far led China's 1.3 billion people to accept the party's monopoly on political power (as well as turbo-charging the Australian economy). An average growth rate of 10 per cent for 30 years remains unmatched by any country at any time. Where else could you report that growth has just slowed to 7.4 per cent? The party is discovering, however, that rapidly rising incomes tend to empower citizens to feel more assertive about their rights.
FERRARIS are the toy of choice for the children of Communist Party leaders but they can be dangerous if not driven with care. When a black Ferrari Spider 458 smashed into a bridge near Tsinghua University on March 18, travelling so fast that it split in two and exploded in flames, and propaganda authorities tightly censored the news, China's online community immediately concluded that the son of a senior leader must have been behind the wheel (accompanied by two semi-clad women, in the two-seater car). Six months later, it turned out they were right. The driver was the son of Ling Jihua, the most important powerbroker and organiser in the Chinese bureaucracy. Ling was moved sideways from his job not for the implication of gross family corruption and hypocrisy - a charge that few leaders are immune from - but for covering up his son's death.
Changing of the guard ... the President-to-be Xi Jinping Photo: Reuters
GENERAL SECRETARY of the Communist Party is the first and most important leadership title that Xi will receive in the three-stage handover from Hu Jintao that starts on November 15. He will also take a second title, chairman of the Central Military Commission, although the timing is uncertain. Xi's third title - the presidency - is largely a symbolic one, which should be bestowed in March.
HU JINTAO remains an enigma to analysts, the public and many of his peers, even after nearly a decade running the world's second-most powerful country. His reign began with optimism that he would redress China's growing inequalities and liberalise the party's political controls. Now, senior officials are openly talking about the ''lost decade'' of the Hu-Wen administration. It seems paradoxical that Hu could steer China to a position of such sudden global importance and retire as something of a tragic figure, particularly after his own clean image was tarnished by the exploding Ferrari driven by the son of his right-hand man, Ling.
INTERNET is now being used by half-a-billion Chinese, including a quarter-of-a-billion who use the powerful Weibo or microblog platforms. For the first time, citizens are able to form vast communities of like-minded people and see their personal and local grievances as part of a national and systemic problem. The ascendancy of Weibo, despite enormous efforts to control and patrol it, has exposed countless abuses of power and also coincided with a surge of cynicism towards the party-state. Chinese society is finding new ways to participate in politics, whether the party likes it or not.
Feted by Chinese leaders ... Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state. Photo: Bloomberg
JAPAN has been the subject of fierce propaganda in the Chinese media and mass protests across China since Tokyo announced it would nationalise the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in early September. The protests, many of which were explicitly racist and violent, are perhaps the clearest example of a rising tide of state-sponsored nationalism that is unsettling China's neighbours.
KISSINGER is everywhere in China. For decades Henry Kissinger has been feted by Chinese leaders, advising international statesmen and profiting from multinational companies seeking access. Now his tome On China has been translated into Chinese and is prominently stocked in local book stores, although his image has been dented by Youtube footage of him endorsing a mass red-singing rally of Bo Xilai's.
LI KEQIANG is the Vice-Premier who is in line to become premier in March. In the early 1980s he was respected as a student leader at Peking University, where he studied law and economics and even translated a book on constitutional law. It is difficult to judge his record over 25 years in government, however, given the Party's insistence on collective decision making and secrecy.
MILITARY remains a powerful political force, despite being riddled with corruption and having few channels to co-ordinate with the civilian side of the party. A series of appointments in the People's Liberation Army will provide clues on whether and how quickly Xi can consolidate power. The most important question is whether Hu hands over the chairmanship of the 11-member Central Military Commission at the same time as he relinquishes the keys to the party apparatus. As Mao famously put it: ''Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun''.
NATIONAL PEOPLE'S CONGRESS, held for 10 days in March each year, is a legislature which in theory oversees the State Council, including the premier, in China's party-government divide. The NPC is the only opportunity for Chinese and foreign journalists to mix and ask questions of senior leaders. Cynics sometimes call the NPC a rubber stamp parliament because it has never rejected a bill. It is often confused with the five-yearly Party Congress and also the Chinese People's Consultative Conference, which convenes at the same time in March, but whose members are appointed by the United Front Work Department to ''advise'' policymakers.
OPENING AND REFORM, the guiding slogan behind China's modern transformation, is being challenged by conservative ideologues and vested interests. The Premier, Wen Jiabao, summed up the predicament in March: ''Reform has reached a critical stage. Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.''
PRINCELINGS are the children of revolutionary leaders who enjoy inherited prestige and power today. Many have made themselves fabulously rich by working the margins between political power and the market. The incoming leadership group will be packed with princelings, led by Xi, although the Bo Xilai implosion has badly hurt the brand.
QIAN, Chinese for money, is fast becoming the currency of Chinese politics. So much so that the phrase ''mai guan'' - the auctioning of official positions - has entered mainstream Chinese dictionaries. Just as politicians are increasingly engaging in business, business people are being invited into the realms of politics. This year Bloomberg reported that the top 70 members of the National People's Congress are worth a cool $US90 billion.
RANK has always been crucial to understanding the workings of China's extraordinarily hierarchical and minutely stratified Communist Party. The problem, for visiting dignitaries and executives, is that those rankings are not publicly disclosed. The hierarchy of the Politburo Standing Committee can be discerned by the order in which they appear on television. Lower levels are more confusing. Visiting trade ministers seldom realise, for example, that the Commerce Minister, Chen Deming, is not one of China's top 203 officials, as he does not have a seat on the Central Committee.
STATE-OWNED ENTERPRISES command the strategic heights of the Chinese economy and they are subsidised by cheap capital, land and myriad regulatory concessions. They also possess great political power, beginning with the 23 SOE chairmen who have seats as members or alternate members of the Central Committee. One of the key tests of the new leadership is whether it can limit SOE privileges and thereby create more room for market-driven entrepreneurs.
TIBET and Xinjiang, which together make up Western China, have been swept by riots and blanketed by security forces since the March riots in Tibet in 2008 and the Xinjiang riots of July 2009. Many urban centres are effectively under military occupation. Since 2009 as many as 58 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest, according to the International Campaign for Tibet. Most have died. While many pressing political questions are now being debated on the internet and in parts of the mainstream media before the leadership transition, the concerns of ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs are out of bounds.
UNITY is the closest thing that China has to an official religion, according the China Policy director David Kelly. This helps to explain why Chinese leaders must be seen to be uncompromising on sovereignty issues involving Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and also uninhabited islands in the East and South China seas. ''In Chinese political history, the heroes are those who unite the Chinese empire,'' says one veteran China watcher, Kevin Rudd. ''The villains are those who allow it to fall apart, or else make it vulnerable to foreign invasion.''
VESTED INTERESTS - liyi in Chinese - are always alluded to but rarely defined when intellectuals and policy advisers debate what stands in the way of reform. The ''interests'' that gain from the current admix of political and market power include real estate developers, state owned corporations, bureaucratic empires and, the Communist Party itself.
WEN JIABAO is the sole public advocate for political reforms in the Politburo Standing Committee. Since 2008 the Premier has spoken in increasingly urgent terms of the need to restrict government power and make officials more accountable to the people. What colleagues make of his lone crusade can be deduced from their tendency to censor such comments from the state-run media. Wen's most strident and memorable plea came in his final press conference in March, in which he foreshadowed the demise of Bo Xilai and zeroed in on the urgent need for ''reform in the leadership system of our party and country''. Wen doesn't have to look far for evidence of the problems he identifies. The New York Times has tallied $US2.7 billion in hidden assets held by his family.
XI JINPING, the Vice-President and leader-in-waiting, is not known for any significant achievements or egregious mistakes. He is the ultimate compromise candidate who has managed to straddle factional, ideological and bureaucratic divides. From November 15, however, he will have to show the character and political acuity than many of his close friends believe he has and lead China into the modern era. One advantage Xi has is that his father was a respected revolutionary hero. The exclusive princeling network he grew up within now reaches across the heights of the party, military and business.
YAN'AN on the Loess plateau of north-western China, is the sanctuary which Xi Jinping's father helped to established and which saved Chairman Mao's bedraggled Long March survivors in 1935. Yan'an, as the local museum puts it, ''is the holy land of the Chinese revolution'' and ''birthplace of New China''.
ZENG QINGHONG is the master princeling powerbroker whose son, Zeng Wei, purchased a $31 million house at Point Piper immediately after the 17th Party Congress. The father had just brokered the historic deal that installed Xi as leader-in-waiting. This time around, in the lead-up to the 18th Party Congress, friends say he has confined his role to advising his patron, the former president Jiang Zemin.