By Benjamin Kang Lim and Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's commerce minister was surprisingly blocked from a spot on the ruling Communist Party's elite body during a conclave this week, sources said, a rare snub for an official that could raise questions about trade policies during his tenure.
The failure of Chen Deming to secure a seat on the 25-member Politburo marks one of the few surprises to emerge from the party's five-yearly congress that wrapped this week with the anointing of a new slate of top leaders who will run the world's second largest economy.
It is also the first time in more than two decades that an official designated for a Politburo spot has been voted out of the party's 205-member Central Committee in elections. Central Committee membership is a prerequisite for a Politburo seat.
"Chen Deming was voted out during multi-candidate elections to the Central Committee," one source told Reuters. State news agency Xinhua said there were eight percent more candidates than seats in a preliminary vote before the formal election on Wednesday.
Not being name as an alternate or full member during the party's 18th congress means Chen, who was previously an alternate member, is almost certain to step down as commerce minister next March. Party regulations require cabinet ministers to be Central Committee members.
It is unclear why Chen, who was seen as a strong candidate for a vice premiership and at 63 is young enough to serve another five-year term under party rules, did not secure the votes for a seat on the Central Committee.
Tianjin Mayor Huang Xingguo, 58, who was elected a full member of the Central Committee, is front-runner to replace Chen as commerce minister, two sources with ties to the leadership said.
Ma Kai, 66, secretary general of the State Council, or cabinet, is tipped to become a vice premier now that Chen is out of the running, the sources said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics.
Until now, a politician designated to become a Politburo member has not been barred from the Central Committee since 1987, when Deng Liqun, an ultra-conservative and reviled Marxist ideologue, was voted out at the 13th congress in a deeply embarrassing fall from grace.
Chen's imminent retirement as commerce minister, a post he has held since taking over from now disgraced politician Bo Xilai in late 2007, would come as China faces growing tension with major trade partners in Europe and the United States and Chinese officials warn of increasing protectionism.
China's leaders set a goal for 10 percent export growth this year, but it is more likely to come in at around 7 percent as the world has struggled to recover from financial crisis.
Some experts suggest that Chen's age was the main factor in his ouster.
"Minister Chen didn't get onto the Central Committee because of his age. He was born in 1949 and that makes him too old to serve a full term," said a Commerce Ministry official who declined to be identified.
But exceptions to the mandatory retirement age of 65 are often made for cabinet ministers and provincial governors and politicians can become a vice premier before they turn 68.
Du Qinglin, 66, a vice chairman to parliament's advisory body, was just elected to the Central Committee.
At a news conference last week on the sidelines of the congress, Chen declined to answer questions about whether he was being considered for a vice premier post, but he defended the ministry's record at the World Trade Organisation.
"When you consider the volume of trade cases in which China is involved, we've won quite a few," Chen said. "But we haven't bragged about our wins, whereas some of our foreign colleagues have trumpeted theirs."
Analysts said Chen had a reputation as a competent and moderate minister, suggesting his performance may not have been at the center of his failure to secure a central committee seat, and despite the questions that are bound to arise, policy would probably not change.
"China's overall trade policy is not set by the ministry, but by the central government," said He Weiwen, director of the China-U.S. Trade Research Centre at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.
Under Chen, the ministry has increased its use of WTO legal processes, in part to gain experience. China has a relatively short history of participating in multilateral institutions and while it has lost most of WTO cases filed against it, most countries defending against complaints have the same problem.
Scott Kennedy, director of the Research Centre for Chinese Politics and Business at Indiana University said Chen's departure from the Central Committee was puzzling and political motives could be at play.
"I don't think he could be punished for his record as minister of commerce. I think overall he's done a pretty decent job with the hand he has been dealt," Kennedy said.
(Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby and Nick Edwards; Editing by Robert Birsel)