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