Seven of the nine current members of the Politburo Standing Committee - the ruling inner circle - are expected to stand down in 2012 because they will by then have served two terms. That leaves two men, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who are widely seen as the country's leaders-in-waiting.
Xi Jinping, Vice President
Xi Jinping is seen as a "princeling", a term applied to senior officials who are believed to owe their promotion to family connections.
His vice presidency and central Communist party role mark him out as the likely successor to Hu Jintao, who must retire as head of the party in 2012 and from the presidency in 2013.
Analysts are watching to see if Mr Xi will be made vice chair of the Central Military Commission, which controls China's army - a position Mr Hu held before he secured the top post.
Born in Shaanxi Province in 1953, Mr Xi is the son of revolutionary veteran Xi Zhongxun, one of the Communist Party's founding fathers.
But to many in China, Mr Xi is most famous for his celebrity wife - the singer Peng Liyuan.
She has described him as frugal, hardworking and down-to-earth.
"When he comes home, I've never thought of it as though there's some leader in the house. In my eyes, he's just my husband," she was quoted by Reuters as saying.
He has demanded plain speaking by party officials, complaining of too much political jargon.
Mr Xi exhibited his own style of direct talks last year when he mocked international concerns over China's growing might.
"Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us. First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?"
Mr Xi studied engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which has produced many of China's current top leaders, including President Hu Jintao.
He joined the Communist Party in 1974 and rose to prominence as a local party secretary in Hebei province from 1982 to 1985.
He moved to Fujian province in 1985 where he rose through the ranks and was eventually installed as provincial governor in 2000.
He is seen as having a zero-tolerance attitude to corrupt officials, and has twice been drafted in to trouble-shoot major problems.
In Fujian he helped to clear up a corruption scandal in the late 1990s, and he was made party chief of Shanghai in 2007 when its former chief, Chen Liangyu, was sacked amid corruption charges.
Shortly after, he was promoted to the Party's Standing Committee. In 2008 he became vice president.
He also worked hard to attract foreign investment to Zhejiang and Fujian, and is seen as pro-business.
Li Keqiang has had a colourful career path, from manual labourer on a rural commune during the 1970s to provincial party leader in 2004.
His Communist Party credentials mirror closely those of current President Hu Jintao, with whom he is said to have close ties.
Mr Li has also been touted as a likely candidate as the country's next premier.
Born in 1955 in Anhui Province, Li studied law at Beijing's prestigious Peking University after his spell on a commune.
He joined the party in 1976 and became involved in student politics as head of the university's students' federation from 1978 to 1982.
After graduation, he slowly made his way up the party's hierarchy.
He joined the upper echelons of the party's youth league in the 1980s, when President Hu was in charge of the organisation.
Li was chosen as deputy secretary of the party in Henan Province in 1998, and became party secretary of Liaoning Province in 2004.
He has impressed many by his efforts to revitalise Liaoning, an industrial province that has suffered following China's economic reforms.
His official portfolio includes development, price controls, finance, climate change, and macroeconomic management.
In a speech in February, he said China needed to change its economic structure to boost domestic consumption, as a way of stimulating the economy.