By James Pomfret

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HONG KONG, Oct 23 (Reuters) The retirement of Zeng Qinghong, China's top official for Hong Kong affairs, is unlikely to shift Beijing's policies toward the city, no matter who replaces him from the new leadership line-up, observers said today.

Zeng, a powerful Vice President and ally of former President Jiang Zemin, who headed the Communist Party's leading group on Hong Kong and Macau -- stepped down from the ruling Communist Party's inner power core at the end of its five-yearly Congress.

The party anointed two rising political stars -- Xi Jinping, and Li Keqiang -- to the Standing Committee. Both are poised to eventually succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

While it's not yet clear who from the Party's highest ranks will inherit the Hong Kong portfolio from Zeng, some analysts tipped Xi, partly given his pro-business, reformist credentials.

''Xi will focus more on economic integration,'' said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong based China scholar.

''He will try to promote Shanghai and Hong Kong's financial positions for China and focus on the symbiotic relationship between the two stock markets,'' Lam added of Xi, a former Shanghai Party chief.

Some pro-Beijing politicians, however, said the politically ascendant Xi might not be keen on the Hong Kong job, given thorny issues such as the push by pro-democracy forces for universal suffrage in the city, a demand that has sparked mass street protests in the past.

Beijing has ruled out votes-for-all in the financial hub at least until 2012 and probably much later, fearing a fully democratic Hong Kong might embolden democracy forces on the mainland.

''The Hong Kong portfolio is too much trouble for him. Hong Kong is a hot potato,'' said Allen Lee, a local deputy to China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC).

Priscilla Lau, another local NPC member, backed Jia Qinglin -- the Chairman of China's main consultative body, the CPPCC, to take up the Hong Kong baton, despite being tainted by corruption charges from the 1990s.

''Jia Qinglin has very good contacts with those CPPCC members from Hong Kong so he's very familiar with Hong Kong,'' she said.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution guarantees the territory a high degree of autonomy, particularly in economic matters.

Since the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, Beijing has been generous in dishing out economic sweeteners to the city, though critics have lambasted the Communist Party leadership for interfering in its political and constitutional affairs.

''I don't think any personnel shifts, will change Beijing's policy direction toward Hong Kong,'' said Cheng Yiu-tong, a member of the Executive Council, Hong Kong's top policy advisory body.

Another key personnel change is the retirement of Gao Siren, Beijing's chief representative in the city as director of the Central Government's Liaison Office.

He will likely be replaced by the low-key Peng Qinghua who was recently promoted to the elite Central Committee.

REUTERS ARB HT1414

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