The 18th National Congress of China’s Communist Party will be the official start of a huge leadership transition at China’s top level. After the Congress, the world’s decond-biggest economy will have a new set of  leaders including a new president and prime minister.  

A list of the possible members of the top leadership team, the Politburo Standing Committee, has already been released. China’s future leaders have varied personal and political histories that could predict the direction China is headed.

Xi Jinping

Xi, the current vice president, wasn’t always poised to be China’s next president. Li Keqiang, now  vice-president-in-waiting, was the rumored future leader. However, Xi’s success when he was in charge of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 sealed the deal for what will likely be his presidency. Preparations for the Games involved foreign affairs, infrastructure development, transportation development, environment protection and media management. His coordination and execution in all these areas culminated in a historic Summer Olympics. Beijing was betting big  on the Games, and Xi delivered.

Xi has another thing going for him: he has made ties in the West. Earlier this year during his U.S. tour, he visited the small town of Muscatine, Iowa, staying with a local family; he had visited there as a lowly provincial official, learning about American agriculture, in 1985. His return last February has left a positive impression on U.S. observers: China’s next president is a man who knows firsthand how real Americans live. His daughter with second wife, and famous folk singer, Peng Liyuan is now attending Harvard University.

Xi recently made news after his ‘disappearance’ in early September. For ten days, he fell off the radar of China’s domestic media, which typically reports any activities of senior officials. According to the Washington Post, his disappearing act included cancelling a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Prime Minister of Singapore. Rumors of health problems, from a sports injury to an auto accident and even a heart attack, filled the media. When he  eventually resurfaced, authorities had no comment or explanation, and refused to discuss the matter further.

Li Keqiang

Coming from modest roots, Li has a reputation among the Chinese for caring about the poor, and helping out people in rural areas. His father was a local official in Anhui, the province where he was born, but, according to a report by the BBC, Li chose to find his own bearing in politics, rather than relying on nepotism. Instead of accepting his father’s offer to prepare him for local party leadership, Li moved to Beijing, where he attended the esteemed Peking University and studied law, while  involving himself with school politics.

After adding a Ph.D. in Economics to his degree, he began his official career with the Communist Party’s youth league, then led by China’s current President Hu Jintao. Though he climbed political ranks quickly, his time running Henan province was filled with problems including factory fires and a national HIV crisis due to the distribution of contaminated blood. He was able to redeem himself as a leader by boosting the province’s economy. And is humble upbringing has earned him the respect of the Chinese masses.

Wang Qishan

Wang Qishan’s time leading China’s biggest banks, China Construction Bank and the People’s Bank of China, is just one part of his vast financial and economic experience. He succesfully led the banks during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, and later he was for several years China’s head negotiator for economic affairs, particularly with the United States.

Henry Paulson, the then-Treasury secretary who negotiated with him during the George W. Bush presidency, was quoted by the BBC as saying Wang was “decisive and inquisitive” and had a “wicked sense of humor”.  Wang has been well received by the West, even writing pieces for the New York Times.  

But to many Chinese, Wang is better known as the man who rose to a big challenge  when he was  acting mayor of Beijing in 2003. The capital was struck by the SARS disease, and his  success in containing it led to his confirmation in the position until 2008. During his time leading Beijing he earned  the widely-known nickname of China’s “chief of the fire brigade,” because he is regarded as a capable leader during times of emergency.

Liu Yunshan

Liu currently serves as director of the Party’s Propaganda Department, with a pivotal role in determining China’s direction on the media. He spent most of his early career in rural Inner Mongolia as a teacher, and started his career with the CCP’s Propaganda Department as a clerk. He then served as reporter with China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency in Inner Mongolia, and was promoted to a division head. Liu continued to climb the ranks in Inner Mongolia, until eventually being relocated to Beijing to serve as deputy director of the Propaganda Department.

Chinese control of the media (and censorship of Western outlets) is not expected to waver, even with the change of leadership at the Congress. Liu’s job in the Standing Committee will likely be to maintain control over the news media and find ways to keep China’s Internet masses regulated as well, as technology makes mass communication easier and easier.

Li Yuanchao

Li does not get a lot of press outside China, but he should: he’s the Party’s top personnel man, and occupies the position once held  by Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China, and his successor Deng Xiaoping.

He is likely to continue in his current role as head of the Organization Department, responsible for knowing the internal politics of party members and, essentially, controlling who fills what jobs.

His position is important in preventing scandals and corruption among local leaders,like the recent, highly publicized Bo Xilai flap. He was quoted in a BBC report as saying that “education, supervision, punishment and reform are all of essential importance in preventing misconduct in recruiting government personnel.”

Zhang Dejiang

While many of the other likely members of the Politburo Standing Committee have experience dealing with the United States, Zhang’s foreign affairs expertise is with one of China’s oldest – and most troublesome – allies: North Korea.

He was born in a northeastern city bordering North Korea, and also studied in North Korea, spending two years at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. His expertise with the reclusive, desperately poor, and nuclear-armed dictatorship could be particularly useful as China, and the world, try to figure out the regime of the young, untested Kim Jong-un.   

He currently heads he Chongqing Municipality Standing Committee, essentially Bo Xilai’s old job leading one of China’s largest cities. That signals the Party trusts him to take on difficult jobs: in Chongqing, he has to clean up after the biggest Chinese political scandal in recent years. He also has a reputation of steady leadership, which is seen as necessary after Bo’s removal from office.

Zhang Gaoli

Zhang is known to have close ties with former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. His political experience in several economically flourishing areas like the cities of Shenzhen and Tianjin and the  Shandong province evidences his pro-market stance.

For the most part Zhang has played his political career under the radar, working at a petroleum company and climbing the ranks there before switching to politics. One topic he has been known to be aggressive about is the persecution of the Falun Gong sect in Shandong. But his persistence regarding that group, which the government considers a dangerous subversive, led to some accusations of corruption and abuse of power.