A new leadership takes root
The latest round of provincial-level reshuffling over the past year has heralded a period of intense political manoeuvring and covert power brokering ahead of the national leadership succession later this year.
Appointments to key provincial posts are usually completed ahead of each Communist Party national congress, which are held about every five years. This year's event, which will be held in the autumn, with pave the way for the biggest power transition in a decade when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao make way for a younger, fifth generation of leaders.
While many incumbent provincial leaders tipped for promotion this year have retained their positions, in the past seven months there have been changes in 13 top party and government posts in 10 provinces, including Hebei, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Anhui and Tibet .
'They are clearly part of the overall personnel arrangement for the transition of power at the 18th Party Congress [scheduled later this year],' said Professor Zhu Lijia of the Chinese Academy of Governance.
State media have hailed these sweeping changes, saying the new line-up at the local level has underscored a trend of propelling younger, better educated and professionally more competent cadres into the party's senior ranks.
The appointments of Fujian governor Su Shulin and acting Hebei governor Zhang Qingwei, both born in the 1960s, are seen as cases in point.
Su, 49, a former head of the state-owned Sinopec conglomerate, and Zhang, 50, the former chairman of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, join a group of contenders for the future top leadership, such as Hunan party boss Zhou Qiang, 51, and party chief of Inner Mongolia, Hu Chunhua , 48.
Both Zhou and Hu Chunhua rose from the Communist Youth League, Hu Jintao's power base, and are seen to have been groomed to head the sixth-generation leadership, which is expected to succeed Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang , the top candidates to head the fifth generation.
Apart from new Hebei party chief Zhang Qingli and Yunnan party boss Qin Guangrong , both 61, the other 11 senior functionaries who were promoted or transferred to take over new top provincial posts are under 60.
While former party boss of Tibet Zhang was transferred to Hebei in August last year after having ruled the restive Himalayan region with an iron fist for five years, Qin was promoted from the post of Yunnan governor, where he served for more than four years.
Zhang's vacancy in Tibet was filled by former Hebei governor Chen Quanguo , 56. Yunnan's deputy party chief, Li Jiheng , 55, who holds a PhD in rural economics and management from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was promoted to governor.
Another much-touted fact of the latest reshuffle is the appointment of a number of technocrats with impeccable academic credentials.
Anhui's new acting governor, Li Bin, 57, raised eyebrows when the former university academic and director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission was transferred to Hu Jintao's home province last month. Li, a PhD in Economics from Jilin University, becomes the only female governor on the mainland and one of two women serving in top provincial posts after Fujian party chief Sun Chunlan , 61.
Liaoning party chief Wang Min, 61, has a PhD in machine manufacturing; Jilin party boss Sun Zhengcai, 48, a PhD in agriculture, and Shanxi party secretary Yuan Chunqing, 59, a PhD in management.
The new acting governor of Zhejiang, Xia Baolong, 59, has a PhD in economics at Peking University and Guangdong's acting governor Zhu Xiaodan, 58, has a master's degree in economics.
With intense power-jockeying and infighting under way ahead of the transition, these trends still fail to shed light on the possible new leadership line-up, and do not help explain the workings of the mainland's secretive politics.
While a mandatory retirement age of 65 has been in place for provincial and ministry officials since the 1990s, most senior Chinese leaders, especially those in the all-powerful Politburo, are well into their 60s by the time they rise through the party ranks, analysts note.
'Age and education are just some of the external factors in observing mainland politics,' said Professor Zhang Ming of Beijing's Renmin University. 'It remains true that the murky power struggles among different party factions decide who gets promoted to which positions.'
Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of City University of Hong Kong also said it was only natural for the next generation of leaders to be younger and better educated.
Both analysts noted the past distinction of major party factions such as the so-called princelings (descendants of leaders) and the party's Youth League has largely been blurred the past few years.
'Unlike previously, outsiders today cannot be so sure who belongs to which faction. The princelings are not a political party and the Youth League can hardly be seen as a single, unified faction,' Zhang said.
Cheng noted the current transition had been focused largely on maintaining stability and continuity of the party's grip on power while downplaying the divisions and struggle among factions.
Professor Zhu also expressed disappointment at the opaque nature of the party's decision-making process at the time of leadership transition.
'Frankly, ordinary people and grass-roots party members have nothing to do with the transition because there is simply no transparency or any platform for the public to be involved,' he said.
'That's the result of the lack of substantial political reform over the past three decades.'
He also disagreed with the so-called new trend, saying the transition game, which could determine the future direction of the country, is still dominated by the party elite.
'It remains the same that higher-level officials select their subordinates from a limited pool of candidates and I don't see much improvement compared with previous leadership reshuffles five or 10 years ago,' he said.
As a result, Zhu said, official corruption seemed to becoming more widespread due to the absence of effective checks and balances.