BEIJING (Reuters) - A year before a Communist Party conclave that could decide who will eventually replace him as China's next leader, President Xi Jinping is maneuvering to reduce the power of a rival political bloc while seeking to get members of his own faction onto the country's top ruling body, according to three sources with ties to the leadership.
Xi is trying to prevent the Communist Youth League faction from dominating the party's seven-member Standing Committee during the 19th congress next year, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"There is no way Xi will let the Youth League have a majority in the Standing Committee," one of the sources told Reuters.
The once powerful faction is struggling to remain relevant after the Youth League's annual budget was slashed by half this year and as it was blasted in state media for being "too elitist and inefficient".
Xi's hand was widely believed to have been behind these attacks, the sources and diplomats said.
The faction is made up of current and former members of the Youth League, the Communist Party's youth wing with 88 million members aged between 14-28. It includes mainly party and government officials with no particular political pedigree but who have for decades been groomed to become potential future rulers.
It was previously a stepping stone to the top, and the faction is a political stronghold of Hu Jintao, Xi's immediate predecessor as president, party and military chief.
Neither the Youth League nor the State Council Information Office, which is both the cabinet spokesman's office and speaks on behalf of the party, responded to requests for comment for this article. There is no foreign media access to the personal office of President Xi or to the offices of any other senior Chinese leader.
PICKING A SUCCESSOR
Among those on the Standing Committee, only Xi, 63, and Premier Li Keqiang, 61 - who is a member of the Youth League faction - will not have reached retirement age by the time of next year's congress.
They are both widely expected to retain their No. 1 and 2 spots on the committee, the sources and diplomats said. The other five will most likely retire based on what has happened at previous congresses.
If the three potential Youth League candidates - Vice President Li Yuanchao (no relation to Premier Li), Vice Premier Wang Yang and Guangdong provincial party boss Hu Chunhua (no relation to former president Hu) - were elected at the Congress, the Youth League faction would have a majority on the body and that would be unacceptable to Xi, the sources said. All three are currently members of the Politburo.
These people said it wasn't immediately clear whether Xi is planning any other moves against the Youth League faction. At least one of the faction's candidates is expected to get elected whatever Xi's efforts, the sources said.
Xi wants to promote those most loyal to him so that he can push through reforms to buoy the slowing economy and handpick a successor to ensure his legacy, they said.
Xi's group is known as the "Zhejiang Clique" after the eastern province of Zhejiang where he built support when he was governor and party boss from 2002-2007.
He also has the support of the so-called "princelings", or red aristocrats, because like him they had parents who were senior party, government or military officials.
One of the sources with ties to the leadership, who meets regularly with top people in Beijing, said: "Xi is 100 per cent out to stop the Youth League faction. He wants his own people in place."
It is too early to say how many of Xi's supporters will make it onto the Standing Committee but there are at least two candidates - also both already on the Politburo - who are close to Xi, the sources and diplomats said.
They are his chief of staff Li Zhanshu, and Zhao Leji, minister of the party's organization department.
Xi's father was Xi Zhongxun, a communist revolutionary before the 1949 formation of the People's Republic of China, and a vice-premier during Mao Zedong's reign. The faction also includes other allies from the political bases Xi built in various provinces and cities when he was a local official and from Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, which he attended.
The Youth League, known as the party's "helping hand and reserve army", is the entry point for those wanting to join the Communist Party. It recruits and trains the nation's best and brightest, mostly university students.
The older officials are considered to be members of the faction, though they are no longer members of the actual league.
The faction's image suffered a setback when in 2012, Ling Jihua, a top aide to then President Hu, tried to cover up the circumstances around the death of his son in a luxury sports car crash.
It was an embarrassment for the party which is sensitive to perceptions that children of top officials lead rich, privileged lifestyles and are completely out of touch with the general population.
Ling was subsequently charged with corruption and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The third main faction in the party is the so-called "Shanghai Gang" led by 90-year-old former president Jiang Zemin, which consists of officials who cut their teeth in the city. Its power is also expected to wane in the shake-up, the sources and diplomats said.
The three groups don't have major policy differences and all believe in seeking to bolster the party's control of China. Some officials are even allied with more than one faction and have different personal loyalties.
The Youth League faction isn't only facing a loss of power on the Standing Committee. It is also likely to lose many of its 14 positions on the 25-member Politburo, which is also a major forum for decision-making. Most of the 14 will have reached retirement age next year and are likely to be replaced by Xi loyalists, the sources and diplomats said.
Xi is, though, walking a fine line to ensure that the Youth League faction does not feel totally left out in the cold, which could antagonise Hu and destroy party harmony. As a result, some of the group's members are set to get new positions, though not on the Standing Committee, the sources said.
For example, the sources said that Hu's son, Hu Haifeng, has been shortlisted for promotion to become mayor of the important eastern port city of Ningbo, a vice ministerial-level position. Hu Haifeng is currently mayor of the less important city of Jiaxing, near Shanghai. Hu Haifeng could not be reached for comment.
And on Thursday, Xi told party members to study the recently published works of his predecessor, calling them an "important part of the party's political building and theoretical training of party members", state news agency Xinhua reported.
The most notable rising member of the Youth League faction who has been talked about by China analysts as a potential future Chinese president is Guangdong's party boss, Hu Chunhua, 53. As one of the two youngest Politburo members, Hu is considered by Sinologists to be a front-runner for further promotion to the Standing Committee.
But his chances could dim if protests in the southern Chinese fishing village of Wukan spiral out of control, according to the sources.
The authorities cracked down this month after villagers had marched for more than 80 days in protest at the jailing of a democratically elected village chief.