The big event in China this week has been a major party meeting, part of a process that will keep President Xi Jinping in power for longer than his predecessors. China watchers have been reading its tea leaves.
But here's a bigger issue: why, exactly, does Xi have the job at all? Why did he get it in 2013, why does he still have it and why will he stay beyond 2023?
We don't really know. We hardly know anything about what happens in the upper reaches of the Chinese government.
This, if you think about it, is really weird. China has the world's second-largest economy, and presents by far the greatest threat to international security on this side of the world. But we don't know what's going on inside its political head.
In our daily lives, we get along with people more easily when we understand them - when we know not just what they're saying but what they have been thinking, and how they might change their minds. It's the same between countries. But no country is in that position with China.
The Chinese Communist Party announces its decisions, but not all of them, and gives little detail on how it has reached a policy - what were the debates, doubts and alternatives. For insight into this, journalists get next to no off-the-record access at high level, academics not much and diplomats disappointingly little.
The more important the issue, the less likely officials will speak. Even if they were interested in briefing outsiders, they would be afraid to do so, fearing loss of their positions.
China watchers usually see only outlines of what's happening, guessing from bits and pieces of information, though often with justifiably high confidence. To take a major example, the CCP has not actually said over the past 12 years that it aims to preserve its power by exerting more control over society and the economy, but that big picture has been easy enough to discern.
Still, it would be good to know details. One obviously crucial issue is the identity of Xi's most powerful supporters in the party. If we knew for certain who they were and what they stood for, we'd have more insight into the nuances of Chinese policy and a better ability to judge how it might change.
These people must include some, not all, of those on the political rung just below Xi. Plausibly (probably?), retired officials who used to have such positions are also key supporters.
These allies, and groups under them, would have worked in preparation for this week's meeting to solidify Xi's position - though that's only another of those (confident) guesses, because no official statement or press report has detailed who has been doing what.
Groups in the party take form mainly because (we infer) officials help and protect each other as they strive to advance and make money from their positions. Officials evidently come together only secondarily for policy aims - such as whether to allow more free enterprise.
The groups are nothing like as structured as, say, Australian Labor Party factions, says Professor David Goodman, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
"Gangs" might be a better word, but their behaviour doesn't usually amount to gangsterism.
While policy views rank behind personal advancement, officials nonetheless must have opinions about what's good for the country (or, more accurately, the party) because decisions need to be made and they don't always have obvious effects for powerful individuals.
That brings us back to the question of why Xi was chosen in the years before 2013.
We know he had backers based on patronage connections, many of them cronies of his father, Xi Zhongxun, a major party official.
But policy should have been a factor, too. By 2012 the party was about three years into the social and economic crackdown that continues today, so it's a good bet that Xi stood for more of that, thereby gaining further support. Certainly he began suppressing possible sources of opposition to the party as soon as he took over.
Early on, most analysts thought he nonetheless stood for more economic freedom, though Goodman reckons Xi was misunderstood on that score. Anyway, he soon extolled the virtues of state enterprises as pillars of the party. They're bastions of conservatism, patronage, economic restriction and inefficiency, brimming with party members.
So that would have further improved his support in the party. [Did you spot that? It was just another inference.]
Altogether, Xi's tough policies, including those towards other countries, must reflect a balance of opinion within the CCP, Goodman says.
An anti-corruption drive by Xi has been good policy, not just for the country but also the party, because it reduces a source of public dissatisfaction. But almost any China watcher will tell you that it's also good policy for Xi and his (unidentified) mates, because it's a tool for packing their enemies off to prison.
By these means, Xi has achieved a status usually said to be the most powerful in China since Deng Xiaoping ruled in the 1980s and 1990s.
And he will stay there, as was virtually confirmed in 2018 when party rules were changed to drop the leadership limit of two, five-year terms.
The importance of this may be overstated, however. Because Xi's views are likely to be in step with the majority at the top of the party, China's domestic and international behaviour probably wouldn't be much different whether Xi were there or not.
At least that's what we can infer.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.