President's favourites for top military posts fall ill before transition for party congress
Jasper Becker in Beijing
The new line-up of the mainland's highest armed forces command - the Central Military Commission - is in doubt because two generals President Jiang Zemin planned to promote are seriously ill, sources said.
Guo Boxiong, 66, the executive deputy chief of the General Staff, was expected to take over from Fu Quanyou as chief of staff.
He also was seen as a likely choice to replace Chi Haotian as Defence Minister with a seat on the Politburo and as one of the commission's vice-chairmen. But he is rumoured to be in hospital with prostate cancer.
Mr Jiang, who is certain to hang on to the chairmanship of the commission after he retires as party secretary later this year, promoted General Guo in 1999.
General Fu, 72, is among a number of PLA leaders due to retire either at the 16th Party Congress scheduled for October, or soon after. 'They are all looking decidedly old,' a Western diplomat said.
They include General Chi, 75, and Zhang Wannian, 74, both vice-chairmen of the commission and Politburo members. Other commission members expected to retire could include General Wang Ruilin, 74, a stalwart supporter of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Yu Yongbo, 70, head of the PLA General Political Department, and Wang Ke, 71, head of PLA Logistics.
General Cao Gangchun, a technocrat behind China's space programme, is likely to take over General Zhang's role. But he also is said to be seriously ill.
'Some people now suspect he is not ill but is tainted by corruption and could therefore be quietly moved on,' one observer said.
Reform of the PLA's procurement system is believed to have uncovered considerable high-level corruption.
Another rising star tipped for elevation is Xu Caihou, 58, deputy chief of the PLA Political Department, who was promoted in 1999 and would normally replace his superior, General Yu.
The dark horse in the race is Lieutenant-General Xiong Guangkai, who runs the PLA's intelligence operations. A fluent speaker of English and Russian, he frequently meets foreign visitors and takes on the role of deputy defence minister.
Some observers suggest that if General Guo is unfit to carry on, General Xiong might become defence minister and a commission vice-chairman.
General Xiong attracted attention in 1996 for threatening a nuclear strike against Los Angeles and for taking the lead in voicing opposition to the United States' national missile defence programme.