Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, pictured here in December 2011, will take over from President Hu Jintao as leader of China's ruling Communist party at the 18th congress to be held in October, and as head of state in March 2013. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

As measured by China’s state-run media, the country’s leadership transition is already well underway.

Vice President Xi Jinping, who will move up to Communist Party general secretary later this year and president of China in 2013, has appeared prominently on the front page of China Daily in recent weeks, signing ping pong paddles with former president Jimmy Carter, toasting the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s visit to China, and being welcomed with honors in Thailand and Vietnam.

Equally ubiquitous has been vice premier Li Keqiang, widely tipped to become the next prime minister. Huge color photos of him have appeared a half dozen times in recent weeks, shaking hands with Central Bank staffers, sitting with ethnic minority villagers in Ningxia and greeting female factory workers in Tianjin.

The higher media profiles of Xi and Li — now virtually eclipsing President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao — are considered part of a carefully orchestrated rollout to present the new leadership tandem to the public. “It’s a collective decision to help consolidate the power of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang,” said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, “and to make the transition more orderly and prepared.”

A vist to Washington by Xi next week will add to the choreographed effort. But beneath the top two jobs, little else seems settled, or at least is known publicly, about a shadowy selection process that takes place largely behind closed doors and involving the most senior of China’s Communist Party leaders and ex-officials.

The continued jockeying is for positions on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, considered the most powerful body in the country’s ruling structure. Seven of the current nine members are due to change — only Xi and Li will retain their positions. Who will occupy the remaining spots, or even whether the Standing Committee might be expanded to 11 seats, is subject to an ongoing guessing game.

The fragility of the process was underscored by reports that Wang Lijun, vice mayor of the sprawling western municipality of Chongqing, was placed under official investigation, after visiting the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu on Feb. 6.

Wang, with a reputation as an anti-crime fighter, was allied to Chongqing’s Party Chief Bo Xilai, considered a top contender for a Standing Committee seat, possibly inheriting the portfolio that would place him in charge of China’s security apparatus. But the loss of one of Bo’s top deputies — and unconfirmed rumors that Wang may have tried to seek political asylum — have thrown off all predictions about Bo’s future.

Beyond the intrigue of who’s in and who’s out, there are larger questions over whether the new leadership team led by Xi will mean a change of course in China’s policy direction.

Will the economy continue to open up, particularly to foreign competition? Will there be any change in China’s regional policy, including sometimes tense relations with some neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China Sea? Will there be a new détente with the United States, or more confrontation over bilateral and global concerns? How will the new leaders deal with growing social tensions — protests over land rights, worker strikes and mounting unrest in the Tibetan region and among ethnic Uighurs in western Xinjiang province?

And, one question overhanging all: Will the new leadership prove any more willing to open up the country’s authoritarian political system to allow more pluralism, a more independent judiciary, and freer expression of ideas?

The view is mixed.

One opinion holds that the governing approach will be different only because a more modern, sophisticated citizenry is demanding it.

“The social and political mood in the country has changed,” said Li, from Brookings, who is an expert on China’s elite politics. “Their policy will be profoundly different — that is the people’s expectation. New leadership produces new policies, period,” he said. “If they do not change, that itself is a problem.”

Wu Jiaxiang, a political analyst in Beijing, agreed. “No matter if they want it or not, dramatic changes will happen in China the next 10 years,” he said. “The domestic situation is reaching tipping point right now. People’s self-awareness is wakening.” Of Xi, he said: “One of his missions is to save the party, like by changing the system of dictatorship into a multi-party system. This is not a question of whether he is willing to do it or not. He has to do so.”

But many others, here in China and outside, are less certain. According to this view, Xi is mostly a consensus choice among competing factions, and power is now exercised by a collective leadership, so the new country’s new rulers are likely to move cautiously, if at all, particularly on issues of reform.

“I am not optimistic about the politics of China in next few years,” said Mo Shaoping, a human rights lawyer. “I don’t think that the dawn of democracy, free speech and the religious freedom will come to China in the next term.” He sees the likelihood of tighter control, saying, “with the growing power of the grass-roots society, the authorities will try harder to crack down against it.”

Nicholas Bequelin, the senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong, said, “I think the outlook is not promising.”

Besides the incoming leader being “a consensus candidate” with limited authority, Bequelin said another factor was the rise in power, and budget, of China’s security apparatus, which now has a higher budget than the military.

“You never know,” Bequelin said. “The aspiration of the Chinese citizenry is going in a very clear direction. They want greater freedom, greater freedom of expression and the rule of law. You never know if a leader will decide they should respond to it, and benefit from it.” He added, “There’s not a lot of optimism at the moment.”

Post researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.