Xi Jinping paves the way for leadership reshuffle
Retirements in Politburo Standing Committee strengthen president's hand
The first change of personnel involving a Politburo member since the 18th party congress suggests that President Xi Jinping has kick-started his preparation for the semi-leadership transition at the 19th party congress when a large number of top officials are expected to retire.
Analysts said the recent secondment of Politburo member Sun Chunlan from the post of Tianjin party secretary to be the head of the party's United Front Work Department was the first such step since November 2012, and paved the way for a major reshuffle of personnel in 2017.
Sun took over the party portfolio from Ling Jihua one week after the aide to former president Hu Jintao was placed under investigation for graft. Sun's post was taken by Tianjin mayor Huang Xingguo, 60, an ally of Xi's since their days working together in the coastal Zhejiang province. Huang's promotion suggests he is likely to be elevated to the Politburo as the Tianjin party post usually comes with a seat in the 25-person body.
Analysts expect Xi to make the reshuffle his priority this year, as the upcoming congress will see five of the seven Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members - all except Xi and Premier Li Keqiang - retire due to age.
Another six members in the Politburo, the second most powerful body, will also step down by then as they will all pass the compulsory retirement age of 68 in 2017. The remaining 12 Politburo members, excluding Xi and Li, will compete for the five PSC seats, the party's innermost cabinet, while about 250 Central Committee members will compete for one of 11 Politburo seats.
Steve Tsang, from the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, said top-level changes at the 19th Congress were required by retirement rules and Xi was more aware of this than anyone else.
Heading into his third year in office, Xi appears more confident with his status, having emerged as the most powerful leader in the post-Deng Xiaoping era. In the past two years, Xi has set out a vision for his two five-year terms. At the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Central Committee in November 2013, the leadership mapped out comprehensive reforms to the social, economic and government systems. At the fourth plenary session in October, the leadership agreed to overhaul the judicial system to promote "rule by law" and "constitutional rule".
Hong Kong-based analyst Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Xi would shift his focus to personnel matters this year and next, with only two plenary sessions of the Central Committee left before 2017.
Zhang Ming, a political scientist with Renmin University, said he believed Xi would use the upcoming party congress as a platform to consolidate his status as paramount leader after Deng.
Xiaoyu Pu, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the contest for a seat on the Politburo and its smaller Standing Committee would depend on many factors and much remained uncertain. But Lau said Xi had probably already made a shortlist of candidates for both bodies, though he might take some time to test "the ability and loyalty of these guys".
"President Xi might take this year and next to decide who he likes in 2017," Lau said.
Lau said that Xi would focus on consolidating his influence in the Central Committee, the panel that selects the Politburo, by stacking it with supporters.
Analysts said Xi would use his anti-graft campaign to dismantle vested interest groups and tighten his grip on power.
The campaign has already detained and expelled from the party several allies and aides of former leaders, including former security chief Zhou Yongkang and retired general Xu Caihou, both of whom had been under the patronage of former president Jiang Zemin . Jiang is believed to be the leader of the "Shanghai faction" - which comprises officials from the financial hub - while Hu is head of the "Youth League faction" - comprised of those who once served in the Communist Youth League.
The party watchdog has detained about 30 officials at the vice-ministerial level or higher for graft since December 2012.
Zhang said the "process of purges and personnel reshuffles will likely continue through the next several months".