NPR logo In Sign Of Succession, China Promotes Top Official

In Sign Of Succession, China Promotes Top Official

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is the Communist Party's sixth-ranking leader and has long been viewed as the anointed successor to President Hu Jintao. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping has been promoted to vice chairman of a key Communist Party military committee, state media reported Monday, in the clearest sign yet that he is on track to be the country's future leader.

Xi, the son of a former vice premier, is expected to take over as party chief and state president in 2012. The new post will allow him time to build up military support before taking over the top job.

The party's central committee met over the weekend to hash out its development plan for the next five years. The leaders also pledged to make "vigorous yet steady" efforts to promote political restructuring, the Xinhua News Agency said, citing a document issued at Monday's close of an annual meeting of the ruling party's Central Committee.

No specifics were given, although party leaders routinely call for administrative refinements to shore up one-party rule.

"Work in improving the CPC ruling capacity and maintaining the party's advanced nature should be strengthened to promote the party's competence in leading the country's economic and social development," Xinhua said, citing the party document.

Xinhua also gave few details about Xi's appointment to the Central Military Commission that oversees the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army.

Xi, 57, is the party's sixth-ranking leader and has long been viewed as the anointed successor to President Hu Jintao, who is expected to step down as party chief in 2012. Appointment to the party's military commission, and an identical one on the government side, has been viewed as a necessary step in preparing Xi for the top office.

The 11-member commission already has two vice chairmen and is chaired by Hu, who, up to now, had also been its only civilian member.

In addition to affirming Xi's path to the top, his appointment bolsters the party's absolute control over the military in a repudiation of calls for the PLA to become a national army under government, not party, leadership.

It also stands as a show of unity among party leaders amid speculation about possible divisions over the scope and pace of political reform. Premier Wen Jiabao has made a number of statements calling for unspecified changes to the one-party system, but others in the leadership have denounced any moves to adopt Western-style democratic institutions.

The Central Committee meeting's formal agenda wasn't known, although it was expected to discuss and approve an economic blueprint for the next five years that aims to narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor and begin the delicate preparations for a new generation of leaders.

China's economy has boomed over the past three decades, but unevenly so, producing hundreds of millionaires while leaving much of the countryside mired in poverty.

The government has struggled with the issue and is expected to focus again on ways to improve the lives of the poor, especially in the underdeveloped west, in the plan for the 2011-2015 period.

"The period would be critical for building a moderately prosperous society," Xinhua said in its report Friday on the start of the meeting.

The new five-year plan is also expected to focus on green technology and improving China's energy efficiency, while boosting government services and making officials more accountable to the public.

Besides the wealth gap, leaders of the 78 million-member party also have to deal with a public dissatisfied with rising inflation, high housing prices, employment woes among college graduates and endemic corruption, while Tibetan and Muslim regions of western China are held in check by a smothering security presence.

Abroad, China is facing criticism from the U.S. for its currency and trade practices and its support for North Korea and ties with Iran.

NPR's Louisa Lim reported from Beijing for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press