The National People's Congress yesterday endorsed Li Keqiang as the first-ranked vice-premier, confirming the protege of President Hu Jintao as the most likely candidate to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier in five years.
Mr Li was among four vice- premiers, recommended by Mr Wen, approved by the nearly 3,000 delegates to the national legislature on the second-last day of its annual meeting.
The other newly elected vice- premiers were former Beijing mayor Wang Qishan and former Guangdong party secretary Zhang Dejiang. Hui Liangyu retained his post as vice-premier in charge of agriculture.
The vice-premiers received nearly unanimous support. There were 30 votes against Mr Zhang's appointment, 23 against Mr Wang, 11 against Mr Hui and 10 against Mr Li.
Mr Li, 52, who joined the powerful nine-man Standing Committee of the Politburo in October, will be tasked with assisting Mr Wen, taking charge of the management of the cabinet and overseeing the mainland's financial and economic policies. He worked under Mr Hu in the Communist Youth League, a power basis of the president and Communist Party chief, before being promoted to head major provinces.
He was considered Mr Hu's favoured choice to replace him eventually, but was eclipsed at October's party congress by former Shanghai party chief Xi Jinping, made vice-president on Saturday.
Mr Wang will succeed top economic troubleshooter Wu Yi to take an expanded role in overseeing trade and finance and handling China's economic relations with other countries.
Ms Wu, dubbed China's 'iron lady' after being the only woman in the highest ranks of the leadership, is retiring after having spent her five-year term trying to reverse increasing trade frictions with the developed world, the United States in particular, over the country's soaring trade surplus.
North Korean-educated Mr Zhang will replace retiring Zeng Peiyan to take charge of economic planning and industrial policies.
The five new state councillors, one rank above ordinary cabinet ministers, are: senior diplomat Dai Bingguo ; new Defence Minister Liang Guanglie ; national police chief Meng Jianzhu ; the former minister in charge of the Communist Party's United Front department, Liu Yandong , now the only woman among the senior leadership; and the former chief of the National Development and Reform Commission, Ma Kai .
Mr Dai, former vice-foreign minister, is replacing outgoing diplomat Tang Jiaxuan , a former foreign minister, to become China's highest-ranking diplomat. Mr Ma was also appointed secretary general of the State Council, the chief of staff of the cabinet. Ms Liu is expected to oversee education.
The list approved yesterday saw many key ministers retained, including Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and People's Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan .