The leader of the province where June 4 activist Li Wangyang mysteriously died in June is likely to become China's next top judge as part of the leadership transition under way at the 18th party congress, sources said.
Zhou Qiang, party chief of southern Hunan, is expected to be appointed president of the Supreme People's Court next March when the transition is completed at the annual parliamentary session, four sources told the Sunday Morning Post.
Zhou, one of President Hu Jintao's top protégés, had previously been under consideration for the weighty job of Chongqing party chief, a post that would guarantee him a seat on the powerful Politburo.
"Word has changed recently - around one month ago. Party personnel officials said Zhou may become top judge," said a source close to the leadership of Changsha , the capital of Hunan.
A legal source who is also based in Changsha said local judicial circles were already buzzing with gossip that Zhou was the leading choice to be the high court's president.
Cao Jianming, 57, the country's top prosecutor, and Shen Deyong , 58, a vice-president of the top court, could be among Zhou's rivals for the post, the sources said.
The court posting would almost certainly mean Zhou, who has long been considered a rising political star with a good chance of ascending to the new Politburo, has missed his chance. The new Politburo is expected to be unveiled on Thursday.
Analysts say Zhou's performance in Hunan can be described as "mediocre" at best, and the mishandling of the Li Wangyang case may have damaged Zhou's image and undermined his chances of further promotion.
A public outcry erupted in Hong Kong after Li was found hanging from the window in his Shaoyang hospital room, with his feet still touching the ground, days after giving a defiant interview to Cable TV ahead of the city's June 4 candlelight vigil.
Hunan authorities' verdict that the blind-and-deaf activist had committed suicide only brought further outrage.
"Jockeying for power in the leadership reshuffle was particularly fierce this time, and, if Zhou fails to make it to the Politburo, it's probably because of his bad record in the Li Wangyang case," said Dr James Sung Lap-kung, a City University political analyst.
Tang Jingling, a Guangzhou-based rights activist who provided legal advice to Li, doubted Zhou was experienced enough to serve as the country's top judge.
As one of Hu Jintao's best-known protégés, Zhou's failure to secure Politburo membership would provide further evidence of the outgoing president's declining ability to get loyalists into key party posts.
"That would mean Hu is not strong or influential enough to get his man in," said Sung.