Who will get a seat at China's top political table?
Leadership hopefuls angle for Xi's backing ahead of autumn reshuffle
BEIJING -- The period just after the Lunar New Year is typically hectic for Chinese politicians. Once the holidays are over, they jump into preparations for the National People's Congress -- the annual parliamentary session in March. So it was highly unusual that Chen Min'er, the Communist Party secretary of Guizhou Province, ordered his staff not to hold any meetings for 15 days, starting on Feb. 5.
Then again, this is no ordinary year in China.
When an aide questioned the order, Chen replied: "Visit impoverished areas, since you will have time. This year is going to be important." The aide immediately understood the reasoning.
The fight against poverty is a priority for President Xi Jinping, 63, who will embark on his second term when the party holds its twice-a-decade congress this autumn. The Politburo Standing Committee -- the country's top policymaking body -- is due to be reshuffled, and younger leaders are angling for seats on the panel.
Chen, 56, is one such official. Born to an average family in Zhejiang Province, he met Xi when the future president was assigned to the province in 2002. Chen reportedly drafted a series of columns Xi contributed to a local newspaper.
Today, Chen is one of the provincial leaders Xi trusts, but he needs actual achievements to continue advancing up the party ladder. Showing a commitment to easing poverty could help his cause.
After putting a stop to all meetings, Chen visited a small mountain village at an elevation of 2,000 meters. The journey, by train and car, took eight hours. Observing homes and an elementary school that had recently been rebuilt, he remarked that the "villagers have become cheerful."
About two weeks later, Xi summoned Chen to Beijing. At a meeting in Zhongnanhai -- the nerve center of the Communist Party -- Chen offered his assessment of the poverty situation. This caused a stir, with party insiders speculating that the meeting signaled Chen's ascent to the top echelon.
Li Qiang, 57, the head of Jiangsu Province, was another close aide to Xi when he was in Zhejiang. Both Chen and Li have been rapidly promoted in recent years as Xi has reinforced his power base.
Still, there are a number of other officials rumored to be in line for the big promotion.
Ones to watch
Zhou Qiang, China's chief justice and president of the Supreme Court, raised eyebrows in January when he said, "Wrong Western notions, such as the independence of the judiciary, are unacceptable."
Soon after he assumed his current post, Zhou had expressed support for judicial independence in writing. The 56-year-old thus attracted attention with his sudden about-face.
Zhou was a leader in the Communist Youth League, a group linked to former President Hu Jintao, now 74. At the previous party congress five years ago, Zhou was assigned to the Supreme Court, leading some to believe he was passed over for a spot in the 25-member Politburo.
Four days before his statement on judicial independence, Zhou met with Xi. This, naturally, has fueled talk that he is trying to climb the ladder by accepting the stance of the president -- that the party should have a guiding role over the judiciary.
Another person to watch is Hu Chunhua, 53, the party secretary of Guangdong Province. In January, Hu grabbed the spotlight by appearing with his mentor, Hu Jintao, at a flower market in the provincial capital of Guangzhou.
Unlike Zhou, Hu Chunhua was promoted to the 25-member Politburo in 2012. Now he is seen as a prime candidate to join the Politburo Standing Committee, which currently has seven members.
Sun Zhengcai, 53, the party secretary of Chongqing, joined the Politburo alongside Hu Chunhua. But in February, he was reprimanded by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection for failing to wipe out the "harmful" habits of disgraced former city chief Bo Xilai and other enablers of corruption at state-owned enterprises.
At this point, it is still anyone's guess who, if anyone, will get the nod.
Skipping a generation?
Assuming Xi will serve two five-year terms as president and the party's general secretary, officials who are about 10 years younger are seen as the obvious potential successors.
Collectively, these rulers-in-waiting are referred to as sixth-generation leaders; Mao Zedong and other party founders are considered the first generation.
When Hu Jintao began his second term in office, he elevated two key figures from the next generation to the party's top tier -- Xi and Li Keqiang, 61, who is now premier.
Xi, however, may be disinclined to appoint potential heirs. The word is that the president is considering abolishing an informal party rule that leaders should retire at 68. Some China watchers say he may not give top leadership posts to members of the sixth generation after all, preferring to cement himself in power for the longer term.