By Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - A loyal ally of Chinese President Hu Jintao is the front-runner to become propaganda minister during a once-in-a-decade generational leadership change, two sources said, but while media-savvy he is unlikely to drastically loosen tight controls.
Liu Qibao is tipped to be appointed to the post during the Communist Party's 18th congress, which opens on November 8, at which the party will anoint Xi Jinping as the country's fifth generation leader after Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
China's apex policy-making body, the seven-member standing committee of the politburo, will be unveiled at the congress. The meeting will decide upon a whole slew of new officials, including provincial party heads and cabinet ministers.
"Liu Qibao is likely to take over as propaganda minister unless there is a change at the last minute," one source told Reuters, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics.
A second source confirmed that Liu was the front-runner for the position.
The post is vital to both instilling confidence in the party and its policies and ensuring a monopoly on the flow of information, something which is getting harder in modern, wired China, with web sites and several feisty new publications straining at the leash to uncover corruption and abuse of power.
Whoever runs it will be in charge of disseminating official policy and viewpoints as well as trying to combat rumours spread by the growing lack of public trust in mainstream state-run media's often mundane and occasionally dubious reporting.
Liu, 59, is currently party boss of the populous southwestern province of Sichuan, a job he was given in 2007. He won plaudits for rebuilding areas struck by the massive 2008 earthquake in which at least 87,000 people died.
Liu can be media-savvy, engaging ordinary people's problems via online questions and using the popular Twitter-like microblog Sina Weibo to send messages, unusual for a senior Chinese official.
"Speaking the truth -- these are the best words you can use," state media quoted Liu as telling a forum last year. "If you want the people to tell you the truth, then officials have to be brave enough to hear the truth, and they must create the right conditions for it."
Yet he has taken a hardline approach to tackling a surge of self-immolations and protests in restive ethnic Tibetan parts of the province, and has locked up some dissidents.
He has also come down hard on Sichuan-based dissidents, including Tan Zuoren, serving five years for subversion after documenting shoddy construction that contributed to deaths in the 2008 quake, and human rights advocate Chen Wei, jailed for nine years for writing essays critical of the government.
Liu has direct experience working at the center of China's formidable propaganda machine, spending a year as a deputy editor at party mouthpiece the People's Daily from 1993 to 1994.
According to an official biography, he comes from a poor background and rose to the upper echelons of the party through Hu's powerbase of the Communist Youth League. For the party, these attributes make him an ideal candidate to run the propaganda team.
"They have to be very reliable in the eyes of the party," said Xiao Qiang, a China media expert at the University of California at Berkeley.
"For the propaganda department, they always need control freaks, not somebody who will make mistakes, and that seems like the kind of personality Liu Qibao has," he added.
Other candidates for the post include Hu Chunhua, party boss of the northern region of Inner Mongolia, and Wang Yang, the reform-minded party boss of the booming southern province of Guangdong, the sources said.
The job reports to an overall propaganda tsar on the standing committee.
If confirmed, Liu will replace Liu Yunshan, who is a preferred candidate to make it to the standing committee. The two Lius are not related.
Liu Yunshan has kept domestic media on a short leash and struggled to control China's increasingly unruly Internet, which has over 500 million users.
The new leadership will most probably keep those restrictions, nervous as it is about stability and the need to ensure one-party rule.
"I see no sign of a relaxation of media controls on the horizon. What are the benefits? If you do it, then all the bad stuff comes out," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
(Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)