Xi Jinping Climbs the China Party Ladder

Hu Jintao's political woes may afford Xi an early opportunity to be inducted into the powerful Central Military Commission

While most plenary sessions of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee – usually held once a year – merely endorse decisions made by the supreme Politburo Standing Committee, the plenum now taking place in Beijing deserves special attention.

Party insiders say Vice-President Xi Jinping, 56, may be promoted to the vice-chairmanship of the CCP's Central Military Commission. This will not only confirm Xi's status as Hu's successor as party general secretary and state president, but also spell a bonanza to the political fortune of the "Gang of Princelings" – the offspring of party elders – that Xi heads.

Xi, the son of former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun, does not come from the Communist Youth League faction led by President Hu Jintao. And Hu, who has been military commission chairman since 2004, has maneuvered to delay Xi's induction to the policy-setting military organ. One reason is that while the princelings are heavily represented in the top echelons of the People's Liberation Army, very few youth league affiliates have attained senior ranks in the defense forces.

Within the standing committee put together at the 17th Party Congress in late 2007, Xi outranks long-time Hu protégé Li Keqiang, who as First Vice-Premier is expected to take over from Wen Jiabao as premier in 2013. It is understood, however, that Hu has hoped to delay Xi's induction to the military commission so as to allow Li, a former party boss of the Youth League, time to build up a power base at the top.

However, recent events in Xinjiang, in which more than 200 people were killed in ethnic violence since early July, have dealt a blow to the Youth League faction. The bulk of the top cadres running Xinjiang and Tibet, including their party secretaries, respectively Wang Lequan and Zhang Qingli, are veteran youth League affiliates.

At the plenum, which runs until Friday, Hu is expected to have to explain why he hasn't sacked Wang, who has worked in Xinjiang since the early 1990s, in the wake of the disastrous riots. A well-known hawk, Wang has masterminded a ruthless Sinicization policy in Xinjiang, which means weaning Uighurs from their linguistic, cultural and religious heritage. So far, supremo Hu has only fired the party secretary of Urumqi and the police chief of Xinjiang, who are regarded as scapegoats to cover up for Wang's failed policies.

With Hu and his Youth League faction on the defensive, Xi's supporters in the Politburo and Central Committee are pushing for his appointment to the Military Commission. After all, Hu himself was first made CMC vice-chairman in 1999, three years before he succeeded ex-president Jiang Zemin as party general secretary in 2012.

There are, however, no specifications in the party charter concerning when a crown prince should be made a CMC member. And given that Hu is still the undisputed supremo of Chinese politics, the president could count on the support of the majority of Central Committee members who are loyal to him – and deny Xi his price until the next Central Committee plenum in 2010.

In the meantime, Hu has to tackle another political minefield at the on-going Central Committee plenum: the plethora of scandals involving the offspring of party leaders. After all, the major theme of the conclave is "party construction," a codeword for ridding the party of corrupt cadres and other bad apples.

It is no coincidence that former premier Zhu Rongji, who retired in 2003, published last month an anthology of the interviews he had given during his five year term as head of government. One of China's most popular politicians, Zhu is remembered as an incorruptible official who personally handled a dozen-odd major graft cases. Several of Chinese media have recently cited one of Zhu's best known sayings: "My only hope is that after retirement, the people will say ‘he is a Mr Clean' – and I'll be satisfied."

Given reports that a high-tech firm once run by Hu's son, Hu Haifeng, was implicated in a corruption incident in Namibia, Africa, senior cadres in the party have indirectly blasted the president by singing the praises of Zhu. While Hu's close aides have banned all reference to Hu Haifeng or his company in the Chinese media, the president still has a lot of explaining to do about how to effectively prevent the spouses and kids of cadres from turning their political connections into hefty profits.

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