WITH all the pomp, pageantry and protest-deterring security, which are traditional at such affairs, the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), will open on March 5th. Its agenda includes an unusually weighty topic: the discussion (and inevitable approval) of a plan for the country’s economic development in the next five years—the Communist Party’s recipe, in effect, for ensuring that the world’s second-largest economy does not stall. But many of the officials at the meeting will be worrying about a more pressing matter: their jobs.

The biggest reshuffle in five years of leadership posts at every level of the Communist Party is getting under way. Hundreds of thousands of party bosses and their colleagues will be replaced, in everything from township party committees to state-owned enterprises. These changes will affect a series of other appointments: party leaders at every level are sometimes given concurrent titles such as mayor, CEO, or, in the case of Xi Jinping, whose main job is as the party’s general secretary, the largely honorific role of president.

The drawn-out process will culminate late in 2017 with sweeping changes at the very top of the party.

This will involve the retirement of five of the seven current members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee. The only members of that body who are almost certain to keep their jobs are Mr Xi and the prime minister, Li Keqiang. Six out of the 18 ordinary members of the Politburo are also due to retire.

For Mr Xi these changes both high and low will be vital to the success of his policies for the rest of the time he has in power. When he took over in 2012, Mr Xi inherited a party bureaucracy stuffed at the highest levels with appointees of his two immediate predecessors as party chief (Hu Jintao, and before him, Jiang Zemin), and at the lower levels by officials used to running their localities in a manner suited to Mr Hu’s priorities. With the upcoming reshuffle, Mr Xi has an opportunity to stack the party hierarchy with his own loyalists. No wonder, then, that foreign dignitaries find Chinese leaders distracted.

As much as the five-year plan, the five-yearly cycle of job uncertainty and related tension has determined the working rhythm of China’s bureaucracy since the 1980s, when a two-term limit was imposed on most leadership positions. Da huanjie, or “big changeovers” of personnel, occur in the build-up to, and right after, each of the party’s five-yearly congresses, the next of which (the 19th) will take place late in 2017 (not to be confused with the NPC, which is not concerned with party affairs).

Mr Xi took over immediately after the 18th congress. By party convention, he too is subject to a two-term limit. That makes the 19th congress crucial for the consolidation of his power. It was Mr Hu (with help from a retired but ever-solicitous Mr Jiang) who supervised preparations for the 18th congress. So the build-up to the 19th will be Mr Xi’s first opportunity to make his mark on the appointment of so many officials. It will also be his last such opportunity before he prepares to retire at the 20th congress in 2022, assuming that is his plan.

Mr Xi will only concern himself with the most important job changes; it is the party’s all-powerful and highly secretive Organisation Department that will decide on most of them, based on his guidelines. These, it would appear, suggest that candidates must be unswervingly loyal to Mr Xi. In recent weeks, several provincial party chiefs have hailed Mr Xi as the “core” of the party leadership, a term that had long been abandoned in favour of language that suggested a more collective style of rule. Mr Xi, it appears, has no scruples about being seen as the pre-eminent strongman.

Who’s up?
During the NPC, which normally convenes for about ten days, foreign journalists will have a rare opportunity to see the provincial party bosses who are likely to get jobs in the Politburo after the 19th congress (media are given access to many of the meetings at which delegates, grouped by province, parrot the party line). But it is still far from clear which of them, if any, are being groomed by Mr Xi to replace him and Mr Li after the congress in 2022. At this point ten years ago, there was already speculation that Mr Xi and Mr Li—both then provincial chiefs—were front-runners.

Today the field looks more open. The party boss of Guangdong province, Hu Chunhua, and that of Chongqing, Sun Zhengcai, are possibles. But they may be handicapped by their lack of strong connections with Mr Xi. Others include Chen Miner, the party chief of Guizhou province who once worked closely with Mr Xi, and various officials in the central leadership including Ding Xuexiang of the Central Committee’s General Office and Zhong Shaojun of the party’s Central Military Commission (which Mr Xi heads).

Unlike a decade ago, there are rumours that Mr Xi may be thinking of flouting convention and staying on after 2022. If this is so, it has not resulted in any less scrambling for top positions. The confusion this contest has caused among subordinates, says Chongyi Feng of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, is slowing down implementation of the market-oriented reforms that Mr Xi has promised. So too is Mr Xi’s campaign against corruption; officials fearful of being accused of graft by rivals prefer to keep their heads down rather than get involved in projects involving large amounts of money. Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College in America describes a Chinese bureaucracy “paralysed by fear”. The Organisation Department is looking out for anyone who is at risk of daibing, or “carrying sickness”, meaning transferring a habit of corruption from one job to another.

One attribute that may help candidates for promotion is being well-versed in the Communist canon. In recent days, official presses have been rolling out copies of an obscure Maoist text: “Work Method of Party Committees”, first published in 1949. Mr Xi has ordered officials to study the tract, which includes an instruction that party bosses must (metaphorically) “learn to play the piano”. This, Mao explains, means they should attend to everything just as a pianist uses all ten fingers. They should not “give all [their] attention to a few problems, to the exclusion of others”. Mr Xi himself, with pressing economic matters to attend to as well as the reshuffle, should perhaps take note.