TOKYO -- Some members of President Xi Jinping's new Zhejiang faction, including an emerging dark-horse candidate to succeed him someday, are likely to be promoted to key posts as the Chinese leader tightens his grip on power.
The prospect comes ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's crucial quinquennial national congress in the autumn of 2017, where top-level personnel changes will be made.
Five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the ruling party's top decision-making body that is led by Xi, are supposed to retire at the national congress. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will remain.
Xi became the Communist Party's general secretary at the last national congress, in the autumn of 2012. He became China's president the following spring.
Under the constitution, a Chinese president can serve two five-year terms, which sees Xi stepping down in 2023.
There are no term limits for the party post of general secretary. But Xi's two immediate predecessors -- Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao -- relinquished both the top party and government seats almost simultaneously when they retired.
The new leadership team to be formed next year will include likely candidates to succeed Xi as leader of the world's most populous country.
The Zhejiang faction, made up of Xi's former subordinates in Zhejiang Province, is rapidly gaining political ground. The faction is also known as Zhijiang Xinjun, or Zhejiang's New Army.
Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, was the world's biggest city in the 13th century and is famous for being home to West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Southwest of Shanghai, the city in September will host a summit of leaders from the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market economies.
Xi became a top provincial official for the first time in Zhejiang and regards the province as his second "hometown." Therefore it might be quite natural for him to want a hero's welcome when he brings the other G-20 leaders there.
Xi's former subordinates in Zhejiang are now rushing to prepare for the summit. "It is the Zhejiang faction, not the Shanghai faction, that is managing the G-20 summit," one political observer in Hangzhou said, referring to a faction led by former President Jiang.
Meanwhile, Li on June 27 delivered a speech at the opening ceremony for the Annual Meeting of the New Champions, also called the Summer Davos, in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing. The Summer Davos was established in 2007 by the World Economic Forum, a Swiss nonprofit.
But Huang Xingguo, who spoke before Li, stole the spotlight. Huang is the Communist Party's acting secretary in Tianjin, presently the city's highest post.
In an apparent snub, Huang avoided mentioning Li's name, though the premier was sitting nearby, but repeatedly referred to Xi by name.
Huang's move came as no surprise to many. The 61-year-old is one of the Zhejiang faction's core members.
Many regional leaders, especially those groomed by Xi, have been publicly using the phrase, "the consciousness of the core" since the beginning of the year and at the president's behest. As a result, the term has spread quickly throughout China's political realm.
The connotation is that Xi is the core of China's leadership and plays first fiddle. Huang, who was born in Zhejiang, was among the first regional leaders to use the words.
After serving as governor of Fujian, Xi was Zhejiang's party chief, the province's top post, from 2002 to 2007.
When Xi came to Zhejiang from Fujian Province, Huang was the party chief in Ningbo, a port city in Zhejiang. The two got acquainted and kept in touch even after Huang moved to Tianjin and took on a new role there.
The Xi administration is pushing ahead with plans to develop Zhejiang's Zhoushan Archipelago New Area, east of Hangzhou, into a hub for China's "oceanic economy."
Huang, who was born near Zhoushan, was closely involved in the city's development projects, including the construction of a 48km network of sea bridges linking Ningbo and the Zhoushan Archipelago.
In 2003, Xi made an inspection tour of Zhoushan and elsewhere, accompanied by Huang and other local officials.
Last August, nearly 1,000 people were killed or injured in massive explosions in Tianjin. As the city's top official, Huang bears grave responsibility. But Huang is so close to Xi that he may be promoted to a higher post, possibly to the Communist Party's 25-member Politburo, at next year's national congress.
Another person with the same family name is also expected to be promoted. Huang Kunming, the 59-year-old executive deputy head of the Communist Party's Publicity Department, was born in Fujian but is now an influential member of the Zhejiang faction.
Huang Kunming, who caught Xi's attention while serving long stints in Zhejiang, assumed his current post after serving as party chief in Hangzhou.
Clearly riding Xi's coattails, Huang Kunming moved to Beijing a year after Xi became the party's general secretary in the autumn of 2012.
A ceremony marking the 95th anniversary of the Communist Party's founding was held July 1 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Organized by the party, it was reported on quite differently from previous anniversary events.
While Xi grabbed the spotlight with his address, Li was relegated to the much lesser role of hosting the event, even though he is No. 2 in the party's hierarchy.
Recently, state-run China Central Television repeatedly broadcast a long documentary about the Communist Party's history. But the doc mostly sung the praises of the politics Xi has ushered in.
Huang Kunming is said to have effectively orchestrated the broadcasts as well as other propaganda efforts.
Already, in the lead-up to next year's national congress, the party is making personnel changes at the local level. And Zhejiang faction members are getting a lot of promotions.
Li Qiang is among them.
Li Qiang became the new party chief in Jiangsu Province on June 30, a day before the 95th anniversary of the party's founding. The 57-year-old's appointment raised some eyebrows.
He once served under Xi as secretary-general of the Zhejiang provincial party committee, then the province's top official. Li Qiang was promoted to Zhejiang governor in 2013.
Jiangsu is the home province of former President Jiang and of Zhou Yongkang, a key member of the Jiang group, or Shanghai faction, who once served as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.
Since being inaugurated, Xi has wielded a sweeping anti-corruption campaign against Jiang, Zhou and other political foes. Many influential figures have fallen victim to the campaign. Zhou was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of bribery and other crimes. Li Yunfeng, Jiangsu's executive vice-governor, is among the latest victims.
The Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party's top anti-graft body, announced on May 30 that Li Yunfeng was placed under investigation.
Li Yunfeng once reported directly to Li Yuanchao, then party secretary in Jiangsu, and has since been a close aide to Li Yuanchao, who currently serves as China's vice president and is a Politburo member.
Li Yuanchao is a core member of the Communist Youth League faction, made up of former officials of the Communist Youth League. This faction has been led by former President Hu and incumbent Premier Li Keqiang.
Li Qiang's appointment as Jiangsu's new party chief surprised some because of his stint in the stronghold of Jiang's Shanghai faction.
Li Qiang is still a candidate to take up membership at the Communist Party's Central Committee and could also get a big promotion at next year's national congress.
Chen Min'er, the 55-year-old party secretary in Guizhou Province, is particularly promising among the core members of the rapidly ascending Zhejiang faction.
Chen won Xi's trust when Xi was party secretary in Zhejiang. Chen, who served under Xi at the time, has been stepping up the party ladder ever since.
His experience with newspapers has served him well. In 1999, the then 39-year-old became president of the Zhejiang Daily Press Group. He later became Zhejiang Province's top propaganda official, supervising local media outlets.
The Zhejiang Daily from 2003 to 2007 published the Zhijiang Xinyu, or New Words, column on the front page. The writer of the column used a pen name, but sources familiar with the matter say Chen was writing them based on Xi's own words. At the time, Xi was Zhejiang's top official.
Chen has since been rapidly promoted.
A "Zhijiang Xinyu" book was published in 2007 after it was disclosed that Xi was behind the columns.
The columns were part of Xi's master plan to one day take the helm of the country.
Guizhou Province, where Chen currently serves as the top official, is economically backward and has a large ethnic minority population. But it is widely seen as a gateway to political success.
Hu, the former president, and Li Zhanshu, the director of the Communist Party's General Office and a member of the party's Politburo, have also held the top post in Guizhou. Li Zhanshu is a longtime aide to Xi.
Given his newspaper and propaganda experience, Chen is a candidate to become a Politburo member and to head the Publicity Department, the party's top propaganda body.
These positions could come his way at next year's national congress.
But there could be more. If Xi gains even greater political sway, Chen could leapfrog other rivals and onto the party's powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
He has even emerged as a dark-horse candidate to succeed Xi.
"Given Chen's strong bond with Xi, it would come as no surprise if Chen does emerge [at the national congress] as a likely candidate to succeed Xi," said a person who has watched Zhejiang politics for many years.
Those in China's leadership circles are sensitive to changing political winds and are now paying close attention to Chen because of his close relationship with Xi.
In fact, Chen in March was on the rostrum of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, smiling and shaking hands with many of those surrounding him.
Chen belongs to the same generation as Hu Chunhua, the party secretary in Guangdong Province, and Sun Zhengcai, the party secretary in the city of Chongqing. Both have been widely seen as likely candidates to succeed Xi.
Chen was born in 1960, while Hu Chunhua and Sun were born in 1963.
If Chen gets an unusually big promotion, he will become a formidable rival to the two.
Xi has so far appointed many old associates to important posts, counting on their support to survive the power struggle he is waging against his political foes.
The tug-of-war is expected to intensify behind the scenes in the run-up to the national congress.