Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping appointed to key military post

Role at central military commission reinforces expectations he will take over when Hu Jintao steps down as president in 2013

Chinese politicians have appointed the vice-president, Xi Jinping, to a key military position, state media reported today, reinforcing expectations that he will become the country's next leader.

Xi has long been expected to take over when Hu Jintao steps down as party general secretary in 2012 and as president the following year.

The state news agency Xinhua announced that Xi had become a vice-chairman of the central military commission, which oversees the People's Liberation Army, after a four-day meeting of the party's central committee.

Xi, 57, is a "princeling", the son of a party veteran, Xi Zhongxun, who was an ally of Deng Xiaoping and helped to oversee the economic opening process in southern China. Xi Jinping was sent to the countryside as an educated youth during the cultural revolution and later studied chemical engineering at the prestigious Tsinghua University, going on to gain a law doctorate.

He was party secretary of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces before taking the top job in Shanghai when Chen Liangyu was brought down by a corruption case. Months later Xi joined the party's standing committee and took responsibility for the Olympics. It was around that time that Henry Paulson, the then US treasury secretary, described him as "the kind of guy who knows how to get things over the goal line".

Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, is a popular folk singer. In an official magazine she described him as frugal, hard-working and down-to-earth.

Overseas, Xi may be best known for remarks that were never reported by China's state media. On a foreign trip last spring, he told his audience: "There are some well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?"

Ni Lexiong, a professor at Shanghai's University of Political Science and Law, told Associated Press: "Barring anything unexpected, Xi will be taking over as party leader".

Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst, said: "Two years is still a lifetime in Chinese politics. While this is a step forward for him and the stability of the party, no one knows what lies ahead in terms of the final selection process.

"We don't know if Hu Jintao will follow Jiang Zemin's model and decide to remain as chairman of the central military commission for some time [after stepping down as general secretary and president]."

Joseph Cheng, head of the Contemporary China Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, told the Associated Press Xi's rise reflected the party's determination to see balance and consensus.

"Hu may have other preferences, but rocking the boat and changing the plan is too risky and the cost too high," he said.

Some had expected Xi to take the post last year, largely because Hu was appointed to the commission three years before taking over. Moses said analysts would be watching for a clearer articulation of Xi's views after today's announcement, particularly with regard to the armed forces.

"We are not sure exactly what Xi stands for or against … his own policy preferences remain quite unclear," he said. "We really have a much clearer sense of Li Keqiang's views; he is quite loquacious. Xi prefers not to have a high public profile."

Many expect Li to take over from Wen Jiabao as premier in 2012.

The annual plenum also discussed the country's next five-year plan, which will begin in 2011. As expected, the communique from the meeting suggested the plan would aim to strengthen the embryonic welfare system and promote equality.

Analysts will be watching keenly for more details of what happened at the plenum, in light of Wen's recent calls for political reform recently. It is unclear precisely what the premier has in mind, but his comments are highly unusual for a Chinese leader and most Chinese media did not report them.

The meeting communique said party leaders had pledged "vigorous yet steady" efforts to promote political restructuring, Xinhua reported. Administrative changes are routine within the party.



Tania Branigan in Beijing and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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