Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was promoted to a key post in the Communist Party's military committee Monday, affirming his path to be the country's leader within three years.
However, the party offered little indication of consensus on another political uncertainty dogging it: The scope and pace of any future reforms to the political system.
Top leaders have increasingly appeared at odds about the direction of any changes to the government and party, with relatively liberal Premier Wen Jiabao going up against more conservative politicians.
Given such disagreements, Xi's appointment to the party's Central Military Commission offered a chance for the party's factions to put on a show of unity. The appointment was approved on the fourth and final day of the annual meeting of the party's governing Central Committee.
Xi, 57, is the party's sixth-ranking leader and is viewed as the anointed successor to President Hu Jintao, who is expected to step down as party chief in 2012 and as president the next year. Xi's long-expected appointment to the commission that oversees the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army, as well as an identical body on the government side, has been viewed as a necessary step in preparing him for the top office.
"Barring anything unexpected, Xi will be taking over as party leader," said Ni Lexiong, a professor at Shanghai's University of Political Science and Law.
Without a transparent electoral process, the party utilizes such appointments to show that it is following precedent and proceeding with the succession in a predictable manner. Hu had been made a vice chairman of the military commission three years before taking over as party leader, and Xi's failure to receive the position last year had sparked speculation that the succession process had stalled.
While Xi, (pronounced "she"), is not believed to be Hu's first choice of successor, his rise illustrates the party's overwhelming desire for balance and cohesion, said Joseph Cheng, head of the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong.
"Hu may have other preferences, but rocking the boat and changing the plan is too risky and the cost too high," said Cheng, pointing to Hu's desire to retain influence over the leadership transition and beyond.
While the succession now appears to be set, consensus on political reforms remains elusive.
Wen, the party's third-ranking leader, has made a number of unusually bold statements over recent months calling for unspecified changes to the one-party system. Other leaders who are expected to step down along with Hu and Wen, have harshly denounced any moves to adopt Western-style democratic institutions. Hu has largely remained aloof from that debate.
A document issued Monday at the end of the four-day gathering pledged to make "vigorous yet steady" efforts to promote political restructuring, but offering no specifics beyond administrative refinements aimed at shoring up one-party rule. It focussed overwhelmingly on economic policy changes intended to produce more balanced growth and better government services.
Xi and other rising leaders have largely kept silent in the reform debate, not wanting to be labeled politically before they and their allies are safely ensconced in the top jobs.
Xi stands to gain important experience dealing with the armed forces as one of three vice chairmen of the expanded 12-member military commission chaired by Hu. The president had been its only civilian member for the past five years, allowing him to consolidate his influence over the military at the expense of other political rivals.
Xi's appointment marks a victory for the "princelings" in the party, the sons and daughters of communist elders whose connections and degrees from top universities have won them entry into the country's elite. Princelings often vie for position with the followers of former leader Jiang Zemin, who is believed to still wield considerable influence behind the scenes.
There's considerable rivalry within the factions, as well, and Xi will likely be forced to share influence with Bo Xilai, another princeling who has leveraged his position as party boss of the sprawling western city of Chongqing to gain national influence.
Xi built his career working in the wealthy eastern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, and served briefly as party chief of Shanghai before being elevated to the all-powerful nine-man Politburo Standing Committee in 2007.
Along with promoting Xi, the 200-plus Central Committee members and more than 150 alternates discussed and approved parts of an economic blueprint for the next five years that aims to narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor.
The plan, covering the 2011-2015 period, includes a greater focus on public services, promoting employment, strengthening the social security system, and better access to public health care, state media said.
China's economy has boomed over the past three decades, but unevenly so. Hundreds of millionaires have emerged while the urban poor struggle and development in the vast countryside lags.
Besides the wealth gap, leaders of the 78 million-member party also have to deal with a public dissatisfied with rising inflation, high housing prices, employment woes among college graduates and endemic corruption. Adding to domestic policy challenges, Tibetan and Muslim regions of western China are held in check by a smothering security presence.
Abroad, China is facing criticism from the U.S. for its currency and trade practices and its support for North Korea and ties with Iran.