The reform-minded Communist Party boss of one of China's poorest provinces will likely be given a powerful Beijing post this year, three sources said, part of a reshuffle ahead of a national leadership change that should ensure China continues to open up.
Li Zhanshu, 61, was relieved as party boss of Guizhou province in southwest China and succeeded by provincial governor Zhao Kezhi, 58, state news agency Xinhua reported on Wednesday. Li will be "reassigned", Xinhua said but did not elaborate.
Li, who has close ties to both President Hu Jintao and leader-in-waiting Vice President Xi Jinping, is the front-runner to become head of the powerful General Office under the party's elite 200-member Central Committee, said two sources with knowledge of Li's planned promotion.
Both sources requested anonymity to avoid political repercussions for speaking to foreign media.
"Li is the new political star," one source with ties to the top leadership told Reuters. "He is acceptable to both (Hu and Xi) camps."
The General Office is the nerve centre of the top leadership, including deciding the meetings and agenda of Politburo members. The office is currently headed by Ling Jihua, one of President Hu's closest aides.
Alternatively, Li could become head of the party's organisation department, a third source said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. The department recommends the party's 82.6 million members for promotion or demotion.
Li is a shoo-in to become either an alternate or full member of the Politburo, which currently has 24 members after the downfall of Bo Xilai, the charismatic but contentious party boss of southwestern Chongqing, in April in the wake of a murder scandal implicating his wife.
A final decision on Li's new job is expected at an informal gathering of incumbent and retired leaders in the northern summer resort of Beidaihe in late July and early August, the sources said.
Hu, 69, is widely expected to hand over the top job in the party to Vice President Xi, 59, at the party's five-yearly 18th national congress later this year. Hu will pass on the presidency to Xi in 2013 after the constitutional limit of two five-year terms.
In the first major step in the provincial reshuffle ahead of the congress, Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong, 64, was named the capital's new party boss this month.
Li cut his teeth as head of the Communist Youth League in northern Hebei province from 1986 to 1990. The Youth League is Hu's power base and known as the party's "help hand and reserve army" boasting more than 75 million members.
During his two-year stint as Guizhou party boss, Li called for reform of the administration, state-owned enterprises, investment and financing vehicles as well as natural resources management.
Guizhou is China's 16th biggest province in terms of area -- about the size of Uruguay. With a population with 35 million as of 2010, it ranks 19th of the country's 31 provinces. Its 2011 gross domestic product was 26th.
Li convened a meeting on "reform and opening up" -- China's national policy since the late 1970s after three decades of closed-door rule under Mao Zedong -- in June and told the province's top officials that Guizhou was an economic backwater because reform was not deep enough.