China's ruling Communist Party unveiled a new leadership line-up on Monday, including two men positioned to eventually succeed President Hu Jintao and government head Premier Wen Jiabao.
Xi Jinping, who has been chief of Shanghai, and Li Keqiang, who has headed the northeast province of Liaoning, were lifted into the new nine-member Politburo Standing Committee -- the innermost ring of power in this top-down state.
While Xi, 54, and Li, 52, have not been openly designated to replace Hu and Wen five years hence, their age and status leave no doubt they are favored to reach the apex of power.
They will inherit a nation with some 1.4 billion people, including restive peasants and a maturing middle class, an increasingly open and market-driven economy likely be the world's third largest and a one-party state that claims loyalty to Marx while it embraces capitalism.
"Comrades Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are two quite young comrades," was all carefully-spoken Hu said of them when presenting them before hundreds of reporters and flashing cameras.
Their rise marked Hu's growing grip on power as he shed the residual influence of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. But the next five years will test Hu's power to secure an untroubled succession in an era when no leader commands absolute loyalty.
"Hu's power has emerged greatly consolidated," said Li Datong, a former editor at a Party paper. "He has his own line-up now; Jiang's out of the picture."
The nine men in dark suits emerged after a tightly controlled vote by the 204-member Party Central Committee, installed at the end of the Party's five-yearly Congress on Sunday.
Xi filed into the chamber at the Great Hall of the People directly ahead of Li, but there was no clear sign of which man was favored for which top job.
"Xi came out ranked first, so that suggests that he has a bigger chance of becoming Party general secretary, but there are a lot of factors that can change in five years," said Zhang Zuhua, a former official.
Hu was widely believed to favor Li, who worked under him in the Communist Youth League, and Xi's rise may reflect officials' reluctance to allow the Party boss to hand-pick his successor.
But both men would be acceptable to Hu, said the ex-editor Li, and state media have stressed that Hu expects the new leadership to work together and avoid damaging rivalry.
"There must be a politically resolute, staunchly unified and energetic and promising collective central leadership," the People's Daily -- official voice of the Party -- urged on Monday.
Hu stays as Party boss, as well as President and head of the Central Military Commission, for five more years, while Wen will continuing managing the government and its ministries.
The Standing Committee retained parliament chief Wu Bangguo and two leaders installed under the previous Party chief, Jiang Zemin -- Li Changchun, who has been propaganda boss, and Jia Qinglin, head of the advisory council attached to the parliament.
The line-up also includes He Guoqiang, set to take control of Party organization and fighting corruption, and Zhou Yongkang, whose background in policing puts him in line to replace Luo Gan, the previous domestic security boss.
The three members of the outgoing Standing Committee who stepped down included Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, a powerful figure installed by Jiang. Both He and Zhou have past work ties to Zeng, who appears to have promoted their rise.
The death of Vice-Premier Huang Ju in June left a fourth vacancy.
Analysts said the mixture of recruits -- some personally close to Hu, others not -- reflected his bid to balance regions and interests and also limits on his power to dictate outcomes.
Li Keqiang worked under Hu in the 1980s, before postings in Henan, a poor and unruly rural province in central China, and Liaoning, a rustbelt province striving to attract investment and emerge as a modern manufacturing base.
Before taking over as party boss of Shanghai earlier this year, Xi Jinping steered two of the country's fastest-growing provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang -- attractive credentials in a government where economic modernization dominates priorities.
"We must certainly grasp development as the top task of this Party in governing and reviving the country," Hu said.
But the retention of Jia, a protege of Jiang's, was a reminder that the new leadership was not Hu's to choose at will. Jia has long been dogged by claims he let corruption run rampant in coastal Fujian province in the 1990s.
At 67, Jia was young enough to escape an informal retirement rule forcing out leaders born before 1940 -- a demand that apparently claimed Zeng.
(Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck, Benjamin Kang Lim, Guo Shipeng and Vivi Lin)