By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Leaders of China’s ruling Communist Party were meeting behind closed doors on Monday to endorse plans to streamline administration and bring fresh blood into the government’s top ranks.
The three-day plenum, or full session, of the Party’s elite 204-member Central Committee will be its second since the 17th Party Congress last October. It is set to discuss personnel changes and plans to restructure the cabinet, the official Xinhua news agency reported without elaborating.
President Hu Jintao will be looking for a show of unity, with members backing these potentially divisive changes as he prepares for the annual session of the National People’s Congress, or parliament, next month when the changes will be publicly announced.
"It’ll be an assessment of Hu Jintao’s commitment to reforms and his ability to push them through," a Western diplomat said, referring to his policy of "scientific development" to correct China’s path from that of the previous administration, which featured breakneck growth at the expense of the environment.
President Hu, parliament chief Wu Bangguo, Premier Wen Jiabao and the top adviser to parliament Jia Qinglin — ranked first to fourth respectively in the Party hierarchy — are widely expected to retain their respective government jobs.
Xi Jinping, who catapulted to the Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee at the Congress, is tipped to succeed Zeng Qinghong as vice-president at the annual session of parliament, which convenes on March 5. Zeng, 68, is retiring.
"Making Xi Jinping vice-president will confirm his status as heir apparent to Hu Jintao," said Jin Zhong, a veteran China watcher and publisher of Hong Kong’s Open monthly magazine.
Hong Kong’s Chinese-language Ming Pao daily has said Xi, 54, would become vice-chairman of the Party’s powerful Central Military Commission as early as at the plenum.
But most political analysts are skeptical, because Hu did not become vice-chairman of the military commission until 1999, seven years after he joined the Standing Committee and one year after he assumed the vice-presidency.
Hu currently doubles as chairman of the military commission and as national Party chief.
Li Keqiang, 52, a close ally of Hu and a next generation leader who joined the Standing Committee along with Xi, will become first vice-premier, sources with ties to the leadership said, requesting anonymity.
"Li Keqiang has been put in charge of restructuring the State Council," one source told Reuters. He is front-runner to become premier in 2013.
Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu will retain his job.
Three new vice-premiers will be appointed, sources with ties to the leadership said. They are former Beijing mayor Wang Qishan, ex-Guangdong Party boss Zhang Dejiang and Liu Yandong, who was responsible for winning over non-Communists when she was minister of the Party’s united front work.
One source said Wang would head a super ministry merging the banking, securities and insurance regulators.
The online edition of Xinhua (www.xinhuanet.com) quoted academics as saying the number of cabinet agencies would be reduced to 21 from 28.
The Ministry of Communications, the Civil Aviation Administration and the State Postal Bureau will be combined to form a super Transport Ministry, sources said, but the Ministry of Railways is likely to be spared the axe.
The Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Water Resources and the State Forestry Administration will be merged into a super ministry, Xinhuanet said.
The status of the State Environmental Protection Administration will be elevated to a ministry by incorporating it with the weather bureau, Xinhuanet added. (Editing by Chris Buckley, Ken Wills and Sanjeev Miglani)