Xi Jinping
Heng Sinith  /  AP file
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, pictures in December 2009, could be in line to become China's new leader.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/18/2010 9:16:19 AM ET 2010-10-18T13:16:19

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was promoted to vice chairman of a key Communist Party military committee Monday, in the clearest sign yet he remains on track to take over as the country's future leader within three years.

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

Xi, 57, who is married to a one-time famous singer, is the party's sixth-ranking leader and has been viewed as the anointed successor to President Hu Jintao, who is expected to step down as party chief in 2012 and as president the next year.

Xi's 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.

"Barring anything unexpected, Xi will be taking over as party leader," said Ni Lexiong, a professor at Shanghai's University of Political Science and Law.

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The 11-member commission already has two vice chairmen and is chaired by Hu, who had also been its only civilian member for the past five years, allowing him to consolidate his influence over the military at the expense of other political rivals.

The reports indicated the commission was being expanded to 12 members rather than Xi replacing one of the current vice chairmen.

Without a transparent electoral process, the party utilizes such appointments to show that the succession is going ahead smoothly and predictably.

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Although the precedent is thin, Hu had been made a vice chairman of the military commission three years before taking over and Xi's failure to receive the position last year had sparked speculation that the succession process had stalled.

Xi has crafted a low-key, sometimes bluff political style. Earlier this year, he complained officials' speeches and writings were clogged with Party jargon and demanded more plain speaking.

During a visit to Mexico early last year, he mocked foreign worries that China was headed down the wrong path.

"Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us," he said. "First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?"

Wife told to keep low profile
Xi is married to Peng Liyuan, a renowned singer who was once arguably more popular in China than her husband, until the Party began ordering her to keep a low profile as her husband moved up the ranks.

In early life, he went to work in the poor northwest Chinese countryside as a "sent-down youth" during the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and became a rural commune official.

He later studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, an elite school where Hu also studied. Xi later gained a doctorate in Marxist theory from Tsinghua.

He is the son of reformist former vice premier and parliament vice-chairman Xi Zhongxun, making him a "princeling" — one of the privileged sons and daughters of China's incumbent, retired or late leaders.

A native of the poor, inland province of Shaanxi, home of the terracotta warriors, Xi was promoted to governor of the southeastern province of Fujian in August 1999 after a string of provincial officials were caught up in a graft dragnet.

In March 2007, the portly Xi secured the top job in China's commercial capital Shanghai when his predecessor, Chen Liangyu, was caught up in a huge corruption case. Xi held that job until October 2007 when he was promoted to the Party's Standing Committee — the ruling inner-circle.

'He's the best'
Xi shot to national fame in the early 1980s as Party boss of a rural county in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing. He had rare access to then national Party chief Hu Yaobang in the leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, west of the Forbidden City.

"He's the best," Peng gushed in an interview with a state-run magazine in 2007, describing him as frugal, hardworking and down-to-earth.

"When he comes home, I've never thought of it as though there's some leader in the house. In my eyes, he's just my husband. When I get home, he doesn't think of me as some famous star. In his eyes, I'm simply his wife," she added.

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.

While Xi is not believed to be Hu's first choice of successor, his rise illustrates the party's overwhelming desire for balance and consensus, said Joseph Cheng, head of the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong.

"Hu may have other preferences, but rocking the boat and changing the plan is too risky and the cost too high," Cheng said.

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Along with promoting Xi, the 200-plus Central Committee members and more than 150 alternates discussed and approved parts of 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.

The plan, covering the 2011-2015 period, includes a greater focus on public services, promoting employment, strengthening the social security system, and better access to public health care, state media said.

China's economy has boomed over the past three decades, but unevenly so. Hundreds of millionaires have emerged while the urban poor struggle and development in the vast countryside lags.

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, 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.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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