BEIJING, Oct 10 (Reuters) Chinese President Hu Jintao will seek to shake off the lingering influence of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, and anoint an heir when the Communist Party gathers next week for its most important political meeting in five years.
As more than 2,200 delegates descend on Beijing for the Congress -- the 17th since the Party was founded in 1921 -- the dominant question is whether Hu can further consolidate power by neutralising the clout of Jiang and his proteges.
A stronger grip on power would give Hu greater scope to pursue his keynote policies to balance breakneck but uneven economic growth, improve the lives of poor farmers, halt rampant environmental degradation and promote ''fair and just'' policies.
Failure could be a recipe for policy gridlock or leadership contention.
Hu, who also serves as party and military chief, will try to retire as many Jiang holdovers as possible and stack the top echelon of power, the Politburo Standing Committee, with allies.
Vice President Zeng Qinghong, ranked fifth in the Party hierarchy and standard-bearer for the Jiang's Shanghai Gang faction, has offered to step down because of age, sources with ties to the leadership said. He is 68.
Another barometer is whether Hu, ranked first among equals in the Standing Committee, can name an ally as his successor -- a fifth-generation leader after Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang and Hu himself.
Hu has had his eye on Li Keqiang, party boss of the northeastern rustbelt province of Liaoning, as heir apparent, but Hu lacks the revolutionary credentials of Mao or Deng to unilaterally decide the next leader.
ACCOMMODATE JIANG CAMP Hu will try to accommodate the Jiang camp with some sort of deal to prevent political jockeying from souring into a showdown.
''Hu has the right to nominate his successor, but he needs to convince his peers to accept his preferred candidate,'' Taipei-based China watcher Kou Chien-wen said.
Shanghai Party boss Xi Jinping -- a ''princeling'' or the children of China's political elite -- is acceptable to both factions and has emerged a dark horse to join the Standing Committee along with Li, sources with leadership ties have said.
The Standing Committee is now down to eight members after the death in June of a Jiang loyalist.
Hu is expected to a receive a second five-year mandate as general secretary of the Party and chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.
Parliament head Wu Bangguo and Premier Wen Jiabao, ranked second and third respectively in the Party hierarchy, are likely to retain their Standing Committee seats, sources said.
Hu's growing power has been in evidence in the run-up to the Congress: One of his closest aides was promoted to a key post while a protege sacked as Beijing mayor during a deadly outbreak of SARS in 2003 made a political comeback.
A main rival, Shanghai Party boss Chen Liangyu was sacked last year and now faces trial for corruption.
But problems abound.
China, the world's fourth-biggest economy, has been trying to check rising prices, stabilise the roller-coaster stock market, curb official corruption and deal with tens of thousands of protests spawned by a yawning wealth gap.
Rising international concerns about food and product safety in the world's number-three exporter have been another headache.
Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China claims as its own, is pushing contentious plans to hold referendum seeking UN membership next March, five months before the Beijing Olympics.
China would be forced to respond, perhaps militarily.
Hu's policies addressing the rich-poor gap and environment will take the stage during the Congress. His political doctrine, the ''scientific concept of development'', will be enshrined in the Party constitution, allowing him to take his place alongside Mao and Deng in the pantheon of Chinese Communist greats.
REUTERS SZ KP1030