BEIJING — China's ruling Communist party named Vice President Xi Jinping to a top military command post Monday, a long-anticipated move that strongly suggests he's next in line to lead the economic superpower.
The appointment, combined with his senior political position, puts Xi — the 57-year-old son of a former vice premier — in place to take over the posts of president and general secretary of the Communist Party from President Hu Jintao after Hu's terms in those positions end by early 2013.
The party's Central Committee announced the promotion Monday evening at the end of a closed-door four-day meeting that also approved measures for the nation's next five-year economic development plan, which is expected to be formally announced next year.
Not much is known about Xi's views, but the anointing of a so-called "princeling" — an offspring of ruling elite — with a track record of economic reform and of not making political waves would seem to fit the party's direction.
Xi's official biography paints the picture of a party man. In 1982 he was named an official in Hebei province, south of Beijing, and he spent the next quarter-century working his way up the party bureaucracy until he was named the secretary of the Communist Party's municipal committee in Shanghai, arguably the top provincial job in the country. His succession of top national jobs began soon after.
Without giving details, state media reported that the Central Committee set goals of narrowing the nation's large economic divide between rich and poor, boosting domestic consumption and improving basic services for citizens, areas that officials have identified in the past as key to maintaining stability.
There was no mention of whether political reform, a topic that's had an unusually high profile in China lately, was discussed. Instead there was a call for "political restructuring."
The committee said "great impetus should be given to economic system reform, while vigorous yet steady efforts should be made to promote political restructuring."
The reference to "political restructuring" wasn't fully explained, though other proclamations from the committee suggested that it means making the Communist Party more efficient to ensure its continued hold on power.
Premier Wen Jiabao has spoken recently about the need for greater political freedom, in an August speech and a CNN interview that aired earlier this month, both of which were seen as remarkable for a senior official in the authoritarian government.
Not long after his CNN comments, which Chinese media didn't report at the time, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Then last week, 23 former officials and academics circulated a public petition calling for more freedom of speech, and more than 100 liberal activists signed a letter calling for Liu's release.
Wen's comments indicated a debate within the party between making administrative revisions that focus on the way the party governs and pursuing true political change, some observers said.
"I think Wen certainly wants to make sure the question gets raised ... even though the outcome of that conversation is not entirely clear to anyone," Beijing-based political analyst Russell Leigh Moses said in a recent interview.
If there was talk of political reform in the Central Committee meetings, it appears that no big decisions have been made.
That probably wouldn't surprise Xu Youyu, a recently retired professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a prominent liberal intellectual. Xu helped draft the letter last week that asked Chinese leaders to let Liu go.
"I think in the mid- to long term there will be political reform," Xu said in an interview during the first day the committee met. "But in the short term, I feel very pessimistic."
Asked about prospects for reform, Yu Jie, a dissident who's written a book critical of Wen, replied: "As long as Liu Xiaobo stays in prison, I don't trust a single word they say."
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