When, on 15 November last year, after a protracted wait, nine besuited men marched out on to a flower-decked stage in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the effect was like some bizarrely conceived beauty contest. They stood in a line to receive the applause of the audience - delegates to the 16th congress of the Chinese Communist Party. They smiled. Some waved. On the whole they looked rather pleased with themselves.
And well they might. The nine new members of the Politburo had made it through one of the world's toughest and most treacherous selection processes to perhaps the world's most exclusive club - the standing committee of the party's politburo. Now that China has abandoned the feral power struggles of the Mao Zedong era in favour of a more orderly process of leadership renewal, they can hope to be in power until the age of 70. These nine men rule China and, until that moment when the curtain was pulled aside and they marched on to the stage, the rest of the world could not be certain who they would be or in what order they would emerge - the indication of their rank in the politburo.
The Chinese Communist Party remains a huge, powerful and almost pathologically secretive organisation. There have been some advances: in keeping with China's capitalist trend, the party now has a website on which are posted the photographs and spare curricula vitae of the new line-up. But the process by which they reached the top, the key alliances, the likely policy choices, the past entanglements and the new directions in which they might take China remain relatively obscure. China may have spin-doctors, but briefings by contending parties and informed leaks about the power struggle behind the curtain are aspects of modernity yet to be widely embraced.
This is one reason for the fascination of China's New Leadership: the secret files, a sustained and high-level leak from the inside by a man who goes under the pen-name of Zong Hairen. Described by the book's editors, the American academics Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, as "a Chinese writer living outside China", Zong Hairen has leaked - through persons unknown - the internal reports on each candidate. These extensive dossiers are collected by the party's organisation department and made available to the men responsible for choosing the next generation of leaders. They are meant to be frank, comprehensive and entirely confidential.
This is, therefore, a very high-level leak indeed, but one that is not without precedent. The same team brought us The Tiananmen Papers, an insider's account of how the leadership dealt with the events of 1989. Like that volume, this one is packed with fascinating details and appears to carry authority; it takes us inside the decision-making process of the Chinese Communist Party - and has certainly been leaked for a purpose. What that purpose might be is suggested by the outcome, and by the discrepancies between the outcome and the predictions the book contains: it went to press before the party congress opened. The text foresaw a committee of seven with the affable and liberal-minded figure of Li Ruihuan in the number two position, and therefore able to exert a key influence over the grey figure of the actual leader, Hu Jintao. (Li was rare in the party leadership in his belief that China would benefit from a free press and contested elections up to provincial level.)
But what emerged from behind the curtain was a standing committee of nine from which Li is absent. Nor has he made it even to the much larger party central committee. He has suffered a political death with no hope of resurrection. Instead of Li, there are three new men whose chief virtues are that they are long-term cronies of the outgoing supremo, Jiang Zemin. It is a novelty in Chinese power politics, and one of Deng Xiaoping's many reforms, that supremos these days are expected to retire. Mao Zedong died in the job and his rivals were eliminated before they could get there. Deng himself retired from most of his posts but continued to run things until he was too infirm to issue orders. To the extent that this is an attempt to bring some constitutional order to China's power play, it is to be welcomed. In terms of the outcome, however, it rates only two cheers at best. Jiang's main concern in retirement is to avoid a reassessment of his actions in power. Of these, the most contentious is the much-needed - but now unlikely - revision of the party's judgement of the Tiananmen massacre, an event for which both Jiang and Li Peng bear a heavy responsibility. Whoever the reformers were who leaked these and the Tiananmen papers , they have suffered a severe setback that, in this power cycle at least, is now virtually impossible to reverse.