Speculation mounts over China's new leaders

Speculation intensified Friday over who will be named the new leaders of China's Communist Party as the country's political elite met for a second day ahead of a once-in-a-decade power handover.

Hong Kong-based Mirror Books website, which has accurately predicted China's incoming leaders in the past, said it believed the new line-up would be dominated by party conservatives unlikely to make major reforms.

The South China Morning Post newspaper made the same prediction Friday, citing sources close to the inner workings of the power transition.

The Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party currently consists of nine men, including Hu Jintao who will step down as general secretary at the 18th Party Congress which begins next week, and his presumed successor, Vice President Xi Jinping.

Xi is expected to replace Hu, while current Vice Premier Li Keqiang appears set to take over from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

In addition to Xi and Li -- the only current leaders who will not retire from the standing committee -- Mirror Books predicted the new line-up would include Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Gaoli and Wang Qishan, citing sources close to the party.

The committee is expected to be cut from nine members to seven in an effort to simplify its consensus-style rule, while Hu and Wen will formally step down from their roles as president and premier in March.

About 500 top officials are attending the secretive Central Committee meeting that began Thursday to finalise the top appointments, ahead of the Congress.

"This looks like the line-up. It is not one that will be good for reform hopes," Willy Lam, a prominent China watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP.

"Barring any overwhelming opposition to these people (at the Central Committee meeting), there is unlikely to be any last-minute changes."

The final line-up of the new committee will not be made public until the close of the party congress in mid-November, although analysts have drawn up numerous lists as debate rages about who will be included and how the choices will affect the country.

Most of the named newcomers have ties to China's 86-year-old former president Jiang Zemin, while prominent reformers and proteges linked to Hu will not win places on the committee, Lam said.

The central committee meeting will likely end on Saturday, he said.

The leadership debate has been complicated by ongoing graft and other scandals linked to top leaders -- including ousted former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, who is likely to be expelled from the party.

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