In a year when Russia and France have gone to the polls, crucial elections have occurred in Egypt and Greece and Barack Obama will fight to hold on to the US presidency, the political party that rules the most-populous nation on Earth and the world’s second-largest economy is also on course to switch to a new leadership team.

The outcome of this leadership transition is now as important to Australia’s future as the results in America. But the details of just what exactly is taking place in China are not well understood.

They do things a bit differently here in China. You won’t find the trappings that attend elections in most other countries — there are no prime-time debates between rival leaders for example. It’s an internal party affair; for an Australian analogy, think of this more as the leadership spill in 2010 rather than Kevin ’07. Only this party leaks a lot less to the media, has more than 80 million members and its own 2.2 million-strong armed forces.

A few tell-tale signs indicate the Communist Party is about to convene its 18th Party Congress (or “The Big Eighteen”, as it’s often referred to). There’s been a ratcheting up of security on Beijing’s streets and at the country’s airports, an uptick in mentions of the meeting in state media and the date of the Beijing Marathon has been postponed.

This year’s leadership transition is taking place against a backdrop of heightened social tension as public discontent with corruption, special treatment for officials and others seen as being “inside the system” has become more vocal. In the capital, frustration with rising rents and long commutes exist alongside a general sense of mistrust. Around the country people are also worried about the cost of housing, food safety and getting access to quality education and health care and this unease is beginning to erode the party’s legitimacy.

The leadership switch is also coming at a time when the rapid pace of economic growth that the country has been able to sustain over the past decade is beginning to slow — a byproduct of persistent weakness in major export markets, an ageing population and a policy shift that aims to gradually transition the economy away from it’s traditional reliance on exports and investment as the drivers of growth.

The country’s new leaders are also entering onto the world stage just as a pronounced shift in American foreign policy “pivots” the US back towards Asia.

The meeting next month will be the main event in China’s two-step leadership transition process. It’s at this congress that the individuals that go on to become the country’s president, premier and the head of their legislative body — the three most powerful positions of state — will be selected, almost five months before them being officially “elected” to those offices by the National People’s Congress in March 2013.

Since the death of Mao Zedong and the CPC’s pursuit of “reform and opening-up” policies under Deng Xiaoping, the party has made an effort to lay down rules that make the transition of power more predictable and rule governed. Fixed terms that limit the length of time top leaders can stay in power (currently two five-year terms) were introduced as were age limits that now force party elders not to seek re-appointment to senior positions once they’ve passed 68 years of age.

That said, the “rules of the game” can still sometimes be bent by powerful individuals or factions.

The other thing to keep in mind is that no one is really sure what’s going on at the top of the Chinese political system. The level of secrecy and insulation that surrounds China’s top leaders means that little reliable information is made public. Indeed, a whole genre of articles, essays and books — most of it in Chinese and hosted on websites that are blocked in China — offer conflicting accounts, often based on leaks from anonymous sources, about who’s likely to make it on to the peak bodies.

Efforts to break through this wall of secrecy surrounding the country’s top leaders and their families are not welcomed by the party. When global financial news service Bloomberg published an investigation that attempted to estimate the personal wealth of vice-president Xi Jinping’s extended family in late June, the media organisation’s website was blocked in China and remains so to this day.

Due to this murkiness, much of what experts predict will happen over the coming months is informed by past experience. Much of the choreography will be based on what took place 10 years ago.

A new party congress, a group of about 2300 delegates who represent the 80 million-plus members of the Communist Party, will meet for the first time in mid-October. A central committee made up of about 400 members of this congress will then be elected and they will decide on the core leadership groups within the party for the coming five-year period. It’s the make-up of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee that is being thrashed out behind closed doors among the powerful players and factions — including during recent secret meetings at the seaside resort of Beidaihe. By the time the formal meeting comes around, most of the personnel decisions are likely to have already been made.

Seven of the current nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee are set to resign due to age; the remaining two — a tall “princeling” named Xi Jinping who turns 60 next year and a bespectacled 57-year-old law and economics graduate called Li Keqiang — will, if all goes according to plan, become the core of China’s fifth generation of leaders and take on two of the most senior positions in the party.

Australian leaders have had a chance to get to know the pair, with Li Keqiang visiting in late 2009 in what was viewed as a fence-mending trip following a rocky year in Sino-Australian relations. Kevin Rudd hosted Vice-President Xi for dinner at The Lodge just three days before Julia Gillard walked into his office and challenged him for the Labor leadership on June 23, 2010. Xi also watched Fremantle beat Carlton at Etihad Stadium and visited Kakadu National Park during his six-day visit.

Both men have been viewed as heirs to the leadership for at least five years. Indeed, by 2007 it was so apparent these men would soon rise to the top of the heap in China that the former US ambassador to China invited both to separate dinners, details of which are now available thanks to WikiLeaks (LiDinner and XiDinner).

Though their faces might now be familiar to all, due to the nature of the Chinese system, no one really has a clear idea of what these two men actually stand for or how they’ll distinguish themselves from previous leaders when they come to power. They’ve been careful not to differentiate themselves from the party line or the incumbent leader — the key to survival in Chinese politics.