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Hu aims to promote close ally Li: sources

By Benjamin Kang Lim

BEIJING -- China's outgoing President Hu Jintao is angling to promote one of his closest allies to the military's decision-making body, sources said, in a move that would allow him to maintain an influence over Beijing's most potent instrument of power.

Three sources with ties to the top leadership said Hu hopes to cut all of his direct links to the top echelons of power by early 2013, on the understanding that his protege, Vice Premier Li Keqiang, is made a vice chairman of the military commission at the party's five-yearly congress later this year.

Hu wants a clean handover of the party leadership, the presidency and the top military post to his anointed successor, Xi Jinping, over the next seven months, to avoid a repeat of the past internal rancor when a transition of power took place, sources say.

They point to the example of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who clung onto the top job at the Communist Party's Central Military Commission for two years after stepping down as party chief and president, a move seen as unpopular with party cadres and the public.

Hu, as president, is the current military commission chairman and, like Jiang, could choose to stay on as its chief for another couple of years beyond his handover of the presidency to Xi in March 2013.

In what is seen as the ultimate bulwark of power, the commission oversees the 2.3-million strong People's Liberation Army (PLA) as well as the People's Armed Police which enforces domestic security.

Hu has not made public his plans for retirement but, unlike in the West where former presidents and prime ministers tend to fade from the public eye, Chinese leaders seek to maintain influence to avoid possible adverse political repercussions down the road.

The government generally does not comment on elite politics and personnel changes before the official announcement.

As a senior member of the commission, Li, who is also set to be named as the next premier in March 2013, would be expected to help protect Hu's legacy in the area of military affairs, which has included a more moderate approach towards Taiwan and to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

“Hu hopes to go down in history as the first leader (since 1949) to step down when his term ends instead of being reluctant to go,” a businessman with leadership ties said.

As well as helping to preserve Hu's legacy, analysts say Li's promotion will ensure there is no political retribution against Hu or his family by rivals who remain in power once he is gone.

But bargaining over the next leadership line-up is not over, and there is still room for change and surprises.

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