BEIJING — China's president-in-waiting and the country's next premier began the carefully scripted, final ascent to the top echelon of power on Wednesday as a Communist Party Congress elevated them to a key ruling council.
Xinhua news agency confirmed that Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang were both elected to the party's central committee at the end of the week-long meeting, a result that was never really in doubt.
"The congress elected a new central committee of the party and replaced older leaders with younger ones," outgoing President Hu Jintao told the closing ceremony of the congress, a mix of model workers, CEOs, soldiers, and ethnic minorities in traditional clothing, all loyal party members.
The leadership changes have been thrashed out in advance through horse-trading between party elders and retiring leaders anxious to preserve political power and protect family interests, but must go through a choreographed election process at the congress.
The 2,270 carefully vetted delegates cast their votes behind closed doors in Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People for the new committee of 205 full members and 170 or so alternate members with no voting rights.
The committee will in turn, on Thursday, appoint a Politburo of about two dozen members and a Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost ring of power with possibly seven members, reduced from the current nine.
Xi has long been expected to take over from Hu, first as party chief at this congress and then as president when parliament meets for its annual session in March, completing the party's second orderly succession since it took power in 1949.
Both he and Li are sure to be on the standing committee. Another person who now seems sure to make it to the committee is financial guru Wang Qishan, but as head of the party's fight against corruption, after being elected on to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
One lingering question that will also be answered on Thursday is whether Hu could continue to wield power if he hangs on to his role as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the supreme decision-making body for China's nuclear-armed 2.3 million-strong military.
Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, only relinquished the post two years after handing the reins of the party to Hu in 2002.
Li is Premier Wen Jiabao's designated heir, and one of his main roles will be overseeing the world's second-largest economy.
All the other eight leading officials who have been tipped as possible members of the standing committee also made it on to the central committee, including Wang Qishan, according to Xinhua.
That includes North Korean-trained economist Zhang Dejiang, minister of the party's organisation department Li Yuanchao, Tianjin's party boss Zhang Gaoli, and the conservative Liu Yunshan, who has kept domestic media on a tight leash.
Wang Yang, Guangdong province's reform-minded party boss, Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng and Liu Yandong, the lone woman among the contenders, were elected to the central committee as well.
The final make-up of the standing committee will not be known for sure until the new leaders emerge at a brief ceremony in the Great Hall on Thursday.
Although the central committee chooses the Politburo and the standing committee, possibly with more candidates than seats for the first time, the outcomes have already been decided at this point by the party's power-brokers, sources with ties to the leadership have told Reuters.
More than slogans, the membership of these elite bodies should foretell economic and political policy direction in the years ahead, how much influence Hu will retain and who, looking a decade ahead, could be China's next leaders.
It could give an idea of China's political and economic direction, especially if it ends up being dominated by conservatives instead of those with a reputation to push reform.
"We must be prepared for some really bad news," said Wang Zhengxu, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies in Britain. "The conservative old guys may get all the really good seats and those we think of as colorful, capable guys get the poorer jobs."
Advocates of reform are pressing Xi to cut back the privileges of state-owned firms, make it easier for rural migrants to settle in cities, fix a fiscal system that encourages local governments to live off land expropriations and, above all, tether the powers of a state that they say risks suffocating growth and fanning discontent.
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After days of turgid speeches and rhetorical displays of party unity, the five-yearly congress also unanimously approved Hu's "state of the nation" work report and approved a revision to the party charter further enshrining Hu's theory of sustainable and equitable development.
Hu told delegates that "we should free up our minds [and] implement the policy of reform" before the closing ceremony ended with playing of Internationale, the traditional Communist anthem.
The party amended its guiding charter to tighten oversight of officials, a move reflecting the depth of concern about abuse of power in the wake of a scandal involving former political heavyweight Bo Xilai.
Hu's work report warned that corruption threatened the party's rule and the state, but said the party must stay in charge as it battles growing social unrest.
Previous transitions have been tainted by purges, plots and bloodshed — including Jiang's appointment as party chief after the crackdown on protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Tiananmen Square, next to the Great Hall, has been decked out with large red flags and huge television screens showing clunky propaganda films all week, as the rest of city was put under a tight ring of security.
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