By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to promote a string of allies in coming months as part of a sweeping reshuffle of the Communist Party, the government and the military, three separate sources with ties to the leadership said.
The reshuffle would allow Xi, who is also party and military chief, to deepen his power base and counter opposition to the bold reforms unveiled this month at the third plenum of the party's leaders, said the sources.
The reforms, which included a relaxation of the one-child policy and letting financial markets play a greater role in the economy, were seen as an indication of how effectively Xi had been able to consolidate his power just a year after taking over as party chief.
"With the third plenum over, Xi will promote his men to work with him and implement his policies and the reforms," one of the sources said.
The changes will happen in the run-up, during or just after the annual full session of parliament next March, the sources said.
Li Zhanshu, 63, one of Xi's closest allies, is the front-runner to replace Han Zheng, 59, as Shanghai's party boss, the sources said. The party boss outranks the city mayor.
"Han Zheng will definitely step down and go to Beijing," a second source told Reuters, who like the others requested not to be identified to avoid repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics.
The sources said Han is tipped to be named to a senior role in the reform committee that Xi is setting up to oversee the reform process. However, Li's and Han's appointments are not set in stone, they said.
Both Li and Han sit on the party's decision-making 25-member Politburo and stand a good chance of promotion to the pinnacle of power - the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee - during the next five-yearly party congress in 2017, the sources said.
A spokeswoman for the Shanghai city government declined to comment when reached by telephone. The Communist Party spokesman's office, also declined to comment.
Barring any last-minute veto by Jiang Zemin, a former president who still wields political clout, Li would take over the top job in Shanghai with the priority of overseeing the development of the city's free trade zone.
"Jiang is hoping that Han Zheng can stay on to look after the interests of his family and allies," a third source said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Han was only named as the Shanghai party boss last November. He served as the city's mayor from 2003 to 2012, overlapping with when Xi was party boss there. Han is acceptable to all camps - Xi, Jiang and Xi's immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Han and Li cut their teeth in Hu's power base, the Communist Youth League, but both men have worked for Xi previously.
Li was appointed head of the party's powerful General Office of the Central Committee only last July. The post is similar to cabinet secretary in Westminster-style governments.
Han and Li have only been in their current positions for a relatively short period of time, so some were skeptical they would move on so quickly.
"It makes sense in terms of the relationships of trust," one Western diplomat said. "But it would be unusual timing."
The Shanghai Free Trade Zone, covering an area of nearly 29 sq km (11 sq miles) in the eastern outskirts of the commercial hub, opened in September. It has been hailed as potentially the boldest economic reform in decades.
The State Council, or cabinet, has said it would open up the country's largely sheltered services sector to foreign competition in the zone and use it as a test bed for bold financial reforms, including a convertible yuan and liberalized interest rates.
Shanghai has traditionally been a breeding ground for top leaders.
Former Shanghai party bosses who went on to sit on the Standing Committee include Xi, Jiang, former premier Zhu Rongji, former parliament chief Wu Bangguo, the late vice premier Huang Ju and Yu Zhengsheng, currently the top adviser to parliament.
"The move is to set up Li Zhanshu for eventual promotion to the Standing Committee," political commentator Zhang Lifan said.
The reshuffle kicked off this week with state media reporting that Hu Heping, party secretary of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, was appointed as head of the organization department of eastern Zhejiang province.
Hu Heping, who is not related to Hu Jintao, is close to Xi's camp.
(Editing by Neil Fullick)