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The old guard prepares to anoint China's new generation


High-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party have been told to gear up for a vital congress next month to start the transfer of power to a younger generation of leaders.

The party, which has 82 million members, has started to reshuffle key personnel ahead of the once-in-a-decade power transition. The party's elite has been told the congress will begin between 15-18 October, a source with close links to high-ranking delegates has told The Independent.

Among the moves is the top-level appointment of a key ally of incoming leader, Xi Jinping, who currently serves as China's Vice President.

The date of the party's 18th congress, which will begin the procedure to install Mr Xi as China's President, has not been publicly announced. Beijing has remained vague, saying only that it will take place later this year. There had been speculation in various media that the congress may be delayed because of infighting and political instability over the fate of the party's former rising star, Bo Xilai.

The scandal surrounding Mr Bo, 63, who was dismissed from his role as party chief for the city of Chongqing in March, continues to cast a shadow over the forthcoming congress after his wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood and was given a suspended death sentence last month. The speedy completion of the trial of Gu Kilai suggests a deal may have been struck to help President Hu Jintao quell fighting within the party to secure his legacy and to ensure an easy passage to power for Mr Xi. The party aims to put a unified face ahead of the congress. "They will work very hard to put the Bo story behind them now," the source told The Independent.

President Hu, 69, will step down as general secretary – the party's top post – at the congress and is due to resign from the presidency at a parliamentary meeting next March, ending his 10-year tenure as China's leader. However, there is a question mark over when Mr Xi will be able to assume full control.

Li Zhanshu, former head of the south-west province of Guizhou and key ally of Mr Xi, was named on Saturday as new head the party's powerful Politburo general office, which gives Mr Li control of the party's day-to-day affairs and shores up support for Mr Xi. Mr Li replaces Ling Jihua, Mr Hu's top aide, who has been named to head the party's United Front Work Department.

It is customary for China's outgoing leader to fill the party's highest ranks with members of his power base, to assure the leader's legacy. It took Mr Hu years to oust supporters of former leader Jiang Zemin from the leadership committee, and Mr Jiang continued to control the military for two years after he stepped down from his other leadership posts.

Seven Politburo members are stepping down, including Mr Hu, who is also head of the central military commission that runs the armed forces. There has been much speculation about whether the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee would remain at its current size of nine seats, shrink to seven, or as some have suggested, be expanded to 11.

Li Keqiang is expected to take over the Premier's position from 69-year-old Wen Jiabao. The party is keen to stress that this new generation will offer a very different brand of leadership, in contrast to when veterans of the civil war and Mao Zedong's era still dominated the ranks.

Who's who: main men at the top of the party

Xi Jinping, 59

Seen as a party "princeling" (a privileged child of a powerful Communist Party figure) the man due to be sworn in as China's next President grew up in an era of reform and of more openness, and is believed to represent a new generation for the party.

Ling Jihua, 55

Considered to be one of Mr Hu's closest aides, his effective demotion to the Central Committee's United Front Work Department (Mr Ling's new, less-powerful office) is a blow to Mr Hu's legacy. Li Zhanshu, an ally of the soon-to-be sworn in Xi Jinping, takes Mr Ling's place.

Li Zhanshu, 62

Mr Li's appointment as head of the party's general office may be a boon to Mr Xi, but it could also prove to be controversial. When The South China Morning Post reported that Mr Li's son was killed in a car crash while driving a Ferrari in March, a wave of public criticism centred on the car – which many said showed he led the opulent lifestyle of a princeling.

Wang Yang, 57

The party chief for China's most populous province, Guangdong, has been hailed as a reformist whose relatively liberal rhetoric has made waves in the party. He is tipped for a key role in the new leadership.

Li Keqiang, 57

China's Vice Premier is one of President Hu Jintao's closest allies. It is thought Mr Hu is angling for Mr Li to be made a vice chairman of the party's military commission at next month's congress.