China's politically powerful vice president stepped down Sunday amid a reshuffling of the Communist Party leadership, removing from office a potential challenger to President Hu Jintao's unrivaled authority.
Closing out a weeklong party congress, delegates selected a new Central Committee, a body that approves leadership positions and sets broad policy goals. Vice President Zeng Qinghong not among those selected, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
Zeng's absence means he cannot be in the Politburo or its Standing Committee, the powerful grouping that runs China, whose members will be approved by the Central Committee on Monday.
Aside from Zeng, Xinhua said two other Standing Committee members, the defense minister and two vice premiers were among the more senior officials stepping aside. No reasons were given but all were either over or near the party's preferred, but not mandatory, retirement age.
Their departure from the leadership, especially that of Zeng, appears to be a boost for Hu, who was reappointed to the Central Committee and is all but certain to be given a second five-year term as party leader. Yet it also raises questions about what deals Hu and his allies had to strike to win Zeng's retirement and whether those arrangements may constrain Hu.
The months leading up to the congress, which is held once every five years to reallocate leadership posts, have brought fractious back-room bargaining among the party elite.
The result of the tussle will determine how strong or divided the leadership is as it tries to ease tensions over a widening rich-poor gap at home and manage China's rising clout abroad so as not to anger the U.S. and other world powers.
At stake for Hu is the chance to pack leading party bodies with allies, including a potential successor, thereby giving himself a freer hand to shape policies.
Hu, Zeng and all the more than 2,200 delegates stood inside the Great Hall of the People to sing the party anthem, The Internationale, and declare the congress "victoriously closed."
In closing remarks, Hu said he recommitted the party to its "basic line of taking economic development as the central task," and to building a "moderately prosperous society in all respects."
"With the concerted efforts of all delegates, we have held high our banner and carried forward our cause in a truth-seeking and pragmatic manner," Hu said, speaking beneath a massive reproduction of the party's hammer and sickle symbol.
Aside from appointing a 204-member Central Committee, the congress chose the membership of the internal anti-corruption agency, the Central Discipline Inspection Committee.
The congress also adopted a revision to the party's charter endorsing a reference to Hu's pet policy initiative - "the scientific outlook on development."
The program, a hallmark of Hu's first five years, has called for increased social spending to help farmers and urban workers whose living standards have not risen as fast as many other Chinese under capitalist economic reforms.
Besides Zeng, other top leaders moving aside were Wu Guanzheng, who has run the party's internal corruption watchdog, and Luo Gan, who oversees law enforcement. Vice Premier Wu Yi, the only female member of the Politburo and China's top troubleshooter on international trade, was also leaving as was Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan.
Of all leadership members, only Zeng rivaled Hu in political influence.
A skilled political insider and the son of a veteran of the revolution, Zeng rose to power as an aide to Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, helping him shove aside rivals. Though Zeng also helped Hu engineer the removal of rivals, Zeng also was seen as a leading protector of Jiang's legacy and influence within the party.
The congress praised Zeng and the other retiring leaders for their "breadth of their political vision and sterling integrity," Xinhua said.
In a sign of Jiang's continued political clout, another of his allies, Jia Qinglin, was reappointed to the Central Committee on Sunday and will thus likely retain his Politburo seat, despite being tainted by his association with a major smuggling and corruption scandal.
Though congress and Central Committee delegates have some influence over leadership decisions, most of the lineup is decided among a core group of the most powerful party members and elders.
State-run media reported that a 237-member steering committee led by Hu approved the final candidate list for the Central Committee after two days of consultations with congress delegates. China Central Television showed Hu and other leaders raising their hands in approval. ( AP )