World Focus: All eyes on who will take over from Hu

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The Independent Online

The man of the moment in China is Xi Jinping, the Vice President and the cadre seen as the likely successor to President Hu Jintao at the helm of the world's most populous nation, but only if he passes a key test at this week's meeting of China's ruling elite.

The country's dramatic social and economic development in recent years has not been matched by major transparency in how the Communist Party operates. Just like watching the Kremlin back in the Cold War days, efforts to gauge political change in the Chinese party come down to speculation, educated guessing and understanding the symbols. All we really know of this week's fourth plenum of the Communist Party's 17th Central Committee is that a full session is meeting behind closed doors until tomorrow, and will discuss issues of "party building" and combating corruption.

What China-watchers are keenly waiting to see is if Mr Xi is named to a powerful military commission, which oversees the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army, during the plenum. Such a move would cement his status as heir apparent, first as party leader in 2012, and then president a year later. The received wisdom is that if the Central Committee ignores precedent and doesn't name Mr Xi to the commission, it might be a signal of discord among the leadership over who will succeed Mr Hu.

The current President was himself elected to the military commission in 1999, paving the way for his rise to the presidency less than four years later, and Mr Xi would be expected to follow the same trajectory.

Two years ago, analysts closely watched the order in which the powerful Politburo Standing Committee walked out on to the stage after a meeting to appoint new members. The order in which they appeared showed who had taken the senior jobs, and it was obvious by Mr Xi's status that he was heir-apparent. The son of a veteran revolutionary and guerrilla leader, and married to a famous singer, Mr Xi is one of the "princelings" of the party's political dynasties and has held key positions including responsibility for Hong Kong and Macau affairs and head of the Central Party School. The 56-year-old also performed well overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "I have no reason to believe Xi has made any major mistake," Steve Tsang, a China expert at Oxford University, told the Associated Press. "As long as he does not do so, he will take over from Hu in 2012."

China's state news agency, Xinhua, made no mention of the succession in its reports about the plenum's opening session on Tuesday. It said the meeting, an annual get-together of 204 top cadres to discuss major policies, will focus on corruption and "party-building" ahead of the 60th anniversary of the revolution that brought the government to power.

The meeting will look at "strengthening and improving the party", Xinhua says, and examine ways to force local officials to disclose their personal assets and those of their close relatives, a strategy known as the "sunshine policy". It will also consider recruitment issues for the 75 million-member party. Mr Hu will review the party's performance over the past six decades.

Democracy, Western-style, is unlikely to feature on the agenda, although Xinhua reports that the party has decided to increase democratic procedures within the party to explore "the political path of Chinese-style democratisation", which many take to mean more intra-party democracy.