BEIJING Delegates to China's Communist Party congress offered the first clues to a generational leadership succession on Wednesday after a preliminary vote tapped Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang as anointed successors for President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
In a brief dispatch, Xinhua news agency said Vice President Xi and Vice Premier Li had both been elected to the party's Central Committee at the end of a key congress, though that result was never really in any doubt.
The 2,270 carefully vetted delegates cast their votes behind closed doors in Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People for the new Central Committee, a ruling council with around 200 full members and 170 or so alternate members with no voting rights.
The committee will in turn, on Thursday, appoint a Politburo of a few dozen members and a Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost ring of power with possibly seven members, reduced from the current nine.
Xi has long been expected to take over from Hu, first as party chief and then as president when parliament meets for its annual session in March. Li is Wen's designated heir.
After days of turgid speeches and rhetorical displays of party unity, the five-yearly congress will also almost certainly approve Hu's "state of the nation" work report and an as yet unknown revision to the party charter.
More than slogans, the membership of these elite bodies should foretell economic and political policy direction in the years ahead, how much influence Hu will maintain and who, looking a decade ahead, could be China's next leaders.
All eyes will be on surprise omissions to the Central Committee; inability to access that body rules out candidates for the Politburo and the Standing Committee.
While Xi and Li's names had been virtually assured of appearing, the potential exists for some other top candidates not to make it.
Sources with ties to the leadership have told Reuters that the vote for the Central Committee is likely to have 20-40 percent more candidates that seats, allowing for possible surprises.
The Central Committee then chooses the Politburo and the Standing Committee, possibly with more candidates than seats for the first time, the sources said.
The membership of the two elite bodies could give an idea of China's political and economic direction, especially if it ends being dominated by conservatives instead of those with a reputation to push reform.
Advocates of reform are pressing Xi to cut back the privileges of state-owned firms, make it easier for rural migrants to settle in cities, fix a fiscal system that encourages local governments to live off land expropriations and, above all, tether the powers of a state that they say risks suffocating growth and fanning discontent.
Hu's work report warned that corruption threatened the party's rule and the state, but said the party must stay in charge as it battles growing social unrest.
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim, Michael Martina, Sally Huang and Sabrina Mao; Editing by Nick Macfie)