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Old leaders step aside in China, reshuffling in favor of youth

BEIJING — China's vice president and two other aging Communist Party leaders stepped aside Sunday, clearing the way for younger potential successors to President Hu Jintao to grab for a spot on a supreme nine-seat decision-making body.

Hu is likely to win a second five-year term as secretary general of the party when a new central committee meets Monday, leaving him in power until 2012.

But a reshuffling of the party's top ranks is laying out the contours of Hu's final five years in command, and revealing both his potential rivals and the contenders to succeed him.

In a sign that Hu is solidifying greater control of the party and its 73 million members, a weeklong congress of some 2,200 top party cadres voted to include Hu's "scientific concept of development" in the party constitution, formally enshrining his policies of paying greater attention to inequality in a nation with deepening social rifts.

As the congress adjourned, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, party disciplinary chief Wu Guanzheng and security chief Luo Gan stepped down from the party's 204-seat central committee. All were 68 years old or older, the unstated retirement age.

The official Xinhua news agency said delegates hailed the departing leaders for the "breadth of their political vision and sterling integrity."

The retirement of Zeng is a victory for Hu, 64, as he seeks clearer authority. Zeng was a powerful party boss allied with former President Jiang Zemin, who seems reluctant to cede residual party influence from his base in Shanghai, the thriving financial capital.

In a dramatic moment in the hours ahead, a new 204-seat central committee will meet Monday and select those who will fill vacancies on the all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the highest body in China.

In addition to the three seats left empty by Sunday's reshuffling, a fourth seat is also up for grabs, left vacant by Vice Premier Huang Ju's death in June.

The four vacancies are likely to be filled by younger communists, among them two contenders to eventually succeed Hu. They are Shanghai party chief Xi Jinping, 54, and Li Keqiang, 52, head of northeastern Liaoning province and a political ally of Hu.

Whether Hu can hoist Li to a position as a clear front-runner — ahead of Xi — will be closely observed as a sign of Hu's strength.

Unlike the current generation of leaders, most of whom are engineers, both Li and Xi are lawyers well-grounded in China's three-decade-old move toward free markets.

Jiang, the bespectacled former paramount leader who left power five years ago, still retains some clout on the standing committee through Jia Qinglin, a 67-year-old longtime associate who kept his central committee post.

Other party elders were shown the door Sunday.

The nation's most powerful woman, Vice Premier Wu Yi, 69, who is China's top trade and economic negotiator with the United States, fell off the central committee, likely because of her age.

Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan, who oversaw industrial development, and Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan were also not named to the central committee.