Vice-President Xi Jinping looks set to be promoted to a military position in the upcoming Communist Party plenum, in a significant step towards finalising the succession process for him to take over the nation's top leadership post.
The fifth plenum of the party's 17th Central Committee, to be held in October, has been scheduled to approve the draft of the nation's 12th Five-Year Programme - the only item on the agenda according to the official announcement. However, the plenum will also confirm the long-anticipated promotion of Xi to become vice-chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, according to officials briefed on the matter. If confirmed, Xi will also automatically assume the same position in the government's CMC in the National People's Congress plenary session in March. Both are organs that oversee the People's Liberation Army.
'The promotion has been decided,' an official briefed on the development said.
The confirmation will pave the way for Xi to succeed President Hu Jintao as chief of the ruling party in autumn 2012 and as president in the spring of 2013.
Holding a military post was not a prerequisite for becoming head of the party and the state, but the promotion would help clarify uncertainty over leadership succession, analysts said.
At the fourth plenum last year, Xi was widely rumoured to be anointed to the military position. However, when the plenum closed with no word of any personnel changes, speculation arose over possible factional infighting. Later on, there were suggestions in some overseas media that it was Xi's decision not to take the promotion then, saying he needed more time to learn.
'If Xi rises through the ranks according to schedule, it could reduce worries about instability among the secretive inner circles of the Communist Party, which has no transparent mechanism for choosing its leaders,' Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University, said.
But Jin Zhong , editor of Hong Kong-based Open Magazine, which also reported Xi's upcoming promotion, said it remained unclear whether Xi could eventually take the real top position, despite the formal appointment as the deputy chief of the CMC.
'In stark contrast, Xi's endorsement has much less legitimacy than that of Hu, who was appointed by the country's former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping , as early as 1992, 10 years before Hu took the highest post.'
Xi was the dark horse who came from behind to beat Hu's top prot?g?, Li Keqiang , in a high-profile succession competition in the 17th party congress in 2007. Li, party boss of the northeastern province of Liaoning , was also seen as a front runner to replace Hu in 2012.
China experts often have to rely on past patterns in order to predict successions.
Hu became vice-chairman of the CMC at a fourth plenum meeting in 1999, paving the way for him to take over from Jiang Zemin as party chief in 2002 and president in 2003.
At the 17th party plenum in 2007, Xi was apparently hand-picked to be fifth in the top hierarchy and serve as Hu's deputy in the party and state.
Unlike Jiang and Hu, who had no military background until they became top CMC officials, Xi has strong connections with the PLA. He served as personal secretary of Geng Biao, then defence minister for three years after his graduation from Tsinghua University in 1979 with a chemical engineering degree.
The Shaanxi native - the son of former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun , who was a close ally of Deng - shot up from relative obscurity as a local official in Fujian and Zhejiang before he was made party leader in Shanghai in early 2007. The elder Xi died in 2002.
Many attribute Xi's rise to the fact that he is one of the few people accepted by all factions in the top echelons of power.
Xi belongs to the powerful princeling group, whose members include Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai and Vice-Premier Wang Qishan . He is also connected to Jiang, leader of the powerful 'Shanghai Gang'.
Xi has generally kept a low profile since being installed as one of the top national leaders. But he also has been known for his occasional outspokenness, something that would be a marked change in style if he did succeed Hu.
While on a visit to Mexico in February last year, Xi hit out at overseas critics, telling a crowd of overseas Chinese that there were 'a few foreigners with full bellies who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country'.
'China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty, nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?' he said.
Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk