China watchers look for patterns and signs in the secretive workings of the Communist Party the way ancient seers examined animal innards for clues to the future. So it came as a shock to many when Vice-President Xi Jinping , the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao , was not appointed vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission last week. The conventional view is that the military appointment is a key stepping stone to the top job. That was the way Hu attained supreme power, so it must be the same for his successor, it is thought. Therefore, a smooth transfer of power when Hu steps down in 2012 appears to have been thrown into doubt. A closed-door power struggle, jockeying for position and horse-trading have - predictably - been predicted. But there are no set rules as to when an heir apparent needs to ascend to the military post; Xi may yet be so appointed at the Central Committee Plenum next year. The way the party organises itself and promotes promising cadres to key positions is very different from 10 years ago when Hu was appointed vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. China itself is a different place. Even a monolithic dictatorship would find it difficult to prepare for political succession years ahead, and the Communist Party is surely no longer that type of political beast. Within the party hierarchy, the selection of rising stars to top positions is increasingly based on merit. A meritocracy within the party is being established, even if political connections and lineage still count for much. Rapid social and economic changes have forced Beijing to adapt to changing times. If the party's vow to introduce greater internal democracy is to be taken seriously, then the process of selection has to be 'less certain and unpredictable', as a Hong Kong commentator has complained. Beijing is not offering Western-style democracy. But even though the political system is opaque, the party understands it needs to be more transparent, accountable and less corrupt if it is to maintain the legitimacy to rule. Xi is a good example of the new system. A princeling whose father was a close ally of Deng Xiaoping , he has proved himself a seasoned troubleshooter for the party. There is no doubt he is being groomed for the top post, considering he was plucked from relative obscurity as the Zhejiang party secretary to become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 and vice-president last year. It has been observed that Xi is 'a man of all factions': he is apparently not Hu's favourite but is acceptable to all sides at the top echelon of power. He is also a leader of the so-called princeling group in which Hu's power base is reportedly shaky. So Hu may find it politic not to guarantee the political future of his successor at such an early date. For the average citizen, instead of asking who enjoys most support in which power centre, it may be more relevant to ask whether the party would be anointing a suitable leader in someone like Xi if he does become president. His time as a party leader in Shanghai has shown him to be an advocate of liberal economic policies and aggressive market reforms. As China's economy is among the first to emerge from the global economic crisis, similar policies may be just what the country needs. His occasional outspokenness also makes him much more interesting in front of the camera as China aims to project itself as a modern, responsible and increasingly sophisticated world power.