Naming new leading officials will complete the transition of power
Two annual meetings next week will not only formalise the top tier of new leaders, but shuffle other contenders into prominent positions
The annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference starting next week will not only formalise the transition of power to the fifth generation of leaders, but decide who will be filling most vacancies among leading officials.
The changes at the very top have long been known: Xi Jinping who replaced Hu Jintao as party chief in November, will formally take over as president, while Li Keqiang will succeed Wen Jiabao as premier and form a new cabinet.
But the two meetings will also decide who will take the reins in other key areas of government. Depending on their backgrounds, experience and allegiances, the new officials could influence governance and policy in important ways.
A sweeping government reshuffle and accompanying changes in its advisory body, the CPPCC, will be endorsed at the annual session of the CPPCC, beginning in Beijing on Sunday, and the annual session of the NPC that kicks off two days later.
At least three other members of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee formed in November - apart from Xi and Li - will be endorsed to fill senior positions. Zhang Dejiang the party's No 3 figure, is expected to replace Wu Bangguo as NPC chairman, Yu Zhengsheng, No 4 in the hierarchy, is tipped to succeed Jia Qinglin as CPPCC chairman, and former Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli most likely will be named executive vice-premier.
The most-anticipated reshuffle next month will be that of the cabinet, with Wen, his four deputies, five state councillors and many of its 27 ministry and commission heads either retiring or being promoted.
Li's four deputies are likely to be Zhang, former Guangdong party chief Wang Yang and current state councillors Liu Yandong and Ma Kai.
Zhang may be put in charge of finance and fiscal policies, with Wang overseeing commerce, industry, energy and transportation, Liu made responsible for culture, religion, education, sports, health services and Hong Kong and Macau affairs, and Ma - the former head the National Development and Reform Commission, the top economic planning agency - likely to be given stewardship of agriculture.
Li, Wang and Liu rose through the Communist Youth League, or Tuanpai, Hu's powerbase.
Chen Ziming, an independent political analyst in Beijing, said that so many politicians with strong Tuanpai backgrounds taking up senior positions in the new cabinet would compensate for the faction's relative lack of influence in the Politburo Standing Committee.
The annual NPC session will also approve plans to restructure ministries and state institutions, paving the way for the first overhaul of the central government in five years.
The Politburo met on Saturday and endorsed draft reforms to the State Council to be discussed by the party's Central Committee when it meets from tomorrow until Thursday.
Another point of interest at the NPC meeting will be who will be Xi's deputy, with former party personnel chief Li Yuanchao and the official in charge of ideology, Liu Yunshan , among the top contenders for the vice-presidency.
Li Yuanchao is the favourite, following a series of recent, high-profile meetings with visiting foreign leaders and dignitaries.
Chen said the vice-presidency could be seen as a consolation prize for Li Yuanchao, following his surprising failure to secure a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee last year.
"Li [Yuanchao] will at least have plenty chances to meet foreign visitors in that prestigious, if powerless, position from time to time," Chen said.
Should the liberal-minded Li Yuanchao be named vice-president, he could then be ranked No8 in the leadership line-up, behind the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee.
Meanwhile, Liu Yunshan, one of the Standing Committee members, cannot be ruled out for the vice-presidential post, given that he has already occupied two of the three vacancies left by Xi - first as secretary of the party's central secretariat then as president of the Central Party School.
As the party's top party propaganda official, the hardliner Liu would wield enormous clout if appointed vice-president.
"Liu's chance of becoming deputy head of the state has actually diminished since he was put in charge of the party's construction and propaganda works," Chen said, as Liu would become "too powerful otherwise".
Yang Jing , one of the seven secretaries of the party's powerful central secretariat, is expected to fill the state councillor slot vacated by Ma to become the State Council's general secretary.
Yang has been close to Li Keqiang for years and would become his right-hand man for the next five if given the post. Yang served as the youth league's secretary in Inner Mongolia from 1993 to 1996 when Li was at the helm of the "cradle of cadres".
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi appears to be the front runner to take over from Dai Bingguo as the state councillor overseeing foreign affairs. Wang Huning , a Politburo member, is seen as his strongest rival for the post.
Wang Huning is more senior in the party, with Yang only a member of its third-tier Central Committee, and the diplomatic service's political status would be raised if he oversaw it as state councillor.
If Yang is promoted, then Zhang Zhijun, one of his deputies, or Wang Yi, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, would be most likely to succeed his as foreign minister.
Gu Su , a law professor and political affairs analyst at Nanjing University, said Zhang Zhijun was more likely to head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because of his extensive experience in the Communist Party's international department, focusing on US affairs.
He was appointed Vice-Foreign Minister in June 2009, and the ministry's party secretary in December, 2010.
"Ties with the US are still the top priority of Chinese leaders, who regard it as a main player in most issues in Asia, such as territorial disputes and North Korea's nuclear programme," Gu said.
"It would rather appoint someone familiar with Washington."
Wang Huning could also succeed Liu Yandong as the state councillor overseeing culture, education and the like.
General Chang Wanquan , the defence minister-in-waiting, is tipped to succeed General Liang Guanglie as the state councillor representing the People's Liberation Army, and Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun will be the state councillor representing the security apparatus in the cabinet.
Additional reporting by Teddy Ng