By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Communist Party is considering downgrading the role of domestic security chief as part of a move to a new and smaller top elite, reflecting fears that the position has become too powerful, sources said.
Reducing the party's Politburo Standing Committee, the inner council at the apex of power, from nine to seven members would come as part of a once-in-a-decade leadership change expected in the next few weeks or months.
China's domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, faces defeat if his successor does not follow his example, and that of recent predecessors, and win a place at the top table.
Before he was tainted in a succession of scandals that hurt the Communist Party this year, Zhou expanded his role into one of the most powerful, and controversial, fiefdoms in the one-party government.
He has been on the Politburo Standing Committee since 2007 while also heading the central Political and Legal Affairs Committee, a sprawling body that oversees law-and-order policy.
That double status allowed Zhou to dominate a domestic security budget of $110 billion a year. But the hulking, grim-faced 69-year-old is due to retire along with most members of the Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress, which will meet before the end of the year.
Leaders appear likely to put a tighter leash on Zhou's successor as head of domestic security by keeping him or her off the down-sized Standing Committee. That successor would remain a member of the less powerful Politburo, which has 24 members -- returning to a pattern the party kept to for much of the 1980s.
The provisional agreement to shrink the Standing Committee and to effectively downgrade the status of Zhou's successor has been rumored for months and firmed up during secret discussions since July, said six sources with direct ties to senior leaders and retired party elders.
"As things now stand, the Political and Legal Affairs Committee secretary won't be in the Standing Committee. He'll have to answer to someone in the Standing Committee. Basically, he won't be his own judge anymore," said a retired party official who remains close to many sitting senior officials.
"I don't think all the people (in the Standing Committee) have been decided, but it seems clear it will be seven."
He and other sources spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing recriminations from discussing secretive party issues.
Zhou was implicated in rumors that he hesitated in moving against the politician Bo Xilai, who fell in a divisive scandal. Security forces also suffered a humiliating failure when they allowed blind rights advocate Chen Guangcheng to escape from 19 months of house arrest and flee to the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
Such fumbles gave President Hu Jintao and his virtually certain successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, a shared motive to put a growing array of police forces and domestic security services under firmer oversight, said Xie Yue, a professor of political science at Tongji University in Shanghai.
"It seems quite likely that Hu and Xi have mustered the will to demote the political standing of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee," he said.
"They're taking advantage of the opinion that the committee's reach has gone too far, and that it's created too many problems and scandals."
Since the 1990s, China's efforts to stifle crime, unrest and dissent have allowed the domestic security apparatus -- including police, armed militia and state security officers -- to accumulate power, and the domestic security budget now outstrips the military's in size.
"There's been a lot of criticism inside the party of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee," said a businesswoman with family ties to a senior politician, referring to Zhou's portfolio. "Zhou Yongkang remains in power, but his voice doesn't have the same impact."
The move to downgrade Zhou's successor would not dilute the party's overall determination to enforce domestic control, but could give other arms of state more room to counter the powers of China's policing apparatus, said Xie, the professor.
"This will reduce somewhat the importance of the Political Legal Affairs Committee inside the party's power array," Xie said in a telephone interview.
"The Political and Legal Affairs Committee secretary will no longer be directly involved in the Standing Committee's key decisions about his portfolio. Unlike Zhou Yongkang, he won't be at the table, directly involved in all those key decisions."
Two sources said the front-runner to replace Zhou as Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee secretary was Meng Jianzhu, now minister for public security.
FOCUS ON PROBLEMS
The push to slim down the Standing Committee at least partly reflects hopes that the next generation of leaders will be more nimble and cohesive in tackling problems, said several observers in Beijing.
"The Hu-Wen era pattern of dividing up powers and allotting responsibilities among all these different stallholders has ended up creating many problems," said Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing lawyer who closely follows politics. "The next leadership wants to be able to act more swiftly."
Broad plans for the power succession and other proposals for the party congress were discussed at a secretive conclave in Beijing in late July, when two sources said Hu spoke to hundreds of senior officials for several hours.
Chinese state media issued a brief account of Hu's speech. But the two sources said the full version dwelled on the major economic and social challenges facing the government.
"He spoke about the many problems and potential crises. There was a sense of anxiety," said a retired official, who said he was given a broad summary of Hu's speech.
"He spoke about corruption, environmental pressures, economic problems - about all the problems facing the party," said another retired official.
"That sense of urgency is one reason to form a smaller Standing Committee," added the second retired official.
STILL SOME SURPRISES?
Overseas Chinese websites, which are beyond the reach of Beijing's censorship, have also carried reports that the Standing Committee will shrink to seven, and many of them have already offered lists of the likely candidates.
But bargaining over the leadership line-up is not over, and there was still room for surprises, with changes in one choice rippling through to other appointments, said several sources.
"Most people back going to seven (in the Standing Committee), but then it all depends on whether they can agree on who those seven are," said the second retired official.
"There's no final agreement yet."
That view was echoed by Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on Chinese politics, who noted that before the 16th Party Congress in 2002, signs that Hu Jintao would lead a seven-member Standing Committee faltered, and the committee took in nine members.
"My sense is that there is still some bargaining to go," said Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University.
"I'm surprised a date for the congress has not yet been set, but I'm assuming we have about six weeks to go. So we may still see some surprises."
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Nick Macfie)