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FILE PHOTO: China's Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan stands next to a Chinese flag at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, September 2, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Benjamin Kang Lim, Ben Blanchard and Philip Wen
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to retain his right-hand man, the graft-buster Wang Qishan, in a senior position at a key Communist Party Congress this month even though he has reached retirement age, according to a majority of people with ties to the leadership interviewed by Reuters.
The fate of the 69-year-old Wang, who keeps a low public profile but is often described as China's second most powerful politician, has been a source of intense speculation ahead of the Congress, which opens on Oct. 18.
Twelve of the 16 people with ties to China's leadership, including former officials as well as relatives, aides and close friends of current and former senior officials, said Wang was likely to retain a leadership role. They said it was unclear what Wang's title would be and whether he would remain on the powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. The other four said he would probably step down.
Under one scenario, Wang would become one of two vice chairmen of the National Security Commission, set up in 2013 to increase coordination among the branches of China's security bureaucracy and headed by Xi, three of the sources said.
Alternatively, he could become vice chairman of the Communist Party itself, if Xi resurrects the party chairmanship position, they said.
Under other scenarios, Wang could become premier - replacing Li Keqiang, a role that traditionally includes management of the economy, or head of parliament.
"He will most likely stay on in some form, maintaining a position of power. He's important to Xi," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator and historian.
"Xi has shown he is willing to break with precedent before and he'll probably do it again with the 'seven up, eight down' rule for Wang," he added, referring to the unwritten rule that officials cannot be promoted when they reach the age of 68.
The party signalled last year that the rule was not binding. However, deferring retirement would raise questions about whether Xi, 64, would himself use that as precedent to retain his roles as party and military chief beyond completion of the traditional two five-year terms.
Regardless of title, Wang's next role may include a remit that extends to management of China's economy, whose growth is imperilled by heavy debt and inefficient state enterprises.
"Wang Qishan has a very strong economic policy voice. I could entirely see a circumstance under which he's given another role that brought that out more," said Duncan Innes-Ker, regional director for Asia for the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Wang was previously a vice governor of the central bank, and as a vice premier with an economic portfolio helped oversee China's recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis.
Another possible scenario is that the retirement age for Chinese officials would be extended to 70, the sources said.
Wang could therefore retain his Standing Committee seat and head the National Supervisory Commission, a super-ministry that would absorb the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) he now heads.
But the sources said keeping him in that role risked cementing the anti-corruption campaign as Wang's legacy, rather than Xi's.
"If Wang Qishan continued as CCDI secretary, his achievements would be so great it would shock his master," a leadership source said, quoting a Chinese idiom.
China's State Council Information Office, which doubles as the party's spokesman's office, did not respond to a request for comment on Wang's future. The party's anti-graft watchdog also did not respond to a request for comment.
After an absence from the spotlight in the summer, Wang has been increasingly active in recent weeks, meeting with high-profile foreign visitors.
In September, he met Singapore's prime minister and Cambodia's deputy prime minister, while the Financial Times reported that Wang had a secret meeting with Steve Bannon, a key former advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump.
"These meetings show Wang is setting himself up to stay on," said a senior Asian diplomat who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.
Wang has transformed his commission into one of China's most powerful bodies, with 1.34 million officials punished since 2013 and dozens of top officials jailed, including the powerful former domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang.
Some analysts and party insiders said it was possible Wang would simply retire, as precedent dictates.
Having overseen the jailing or punishment of more than one million Communist Party, government and military officials, Wang has accumulated many enemies, the sources said. Keeping Wang on the standing committee at the expense of younger candidates for promotion could also put pressure on Xi.
Wang may also want to retire, some of the sources said.
"He will stand down mainly because Xi does not need him any longer and changing the retirement age rule carries significant political costs," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Wang's retirement could also be perceived as a victory for Guo Wengui, the fugitive tycoon who has made unsubstantiated corruption allegations against senior party officials, including Wang and his family.
More generally, one of the sources with leadership ties said, Wang's retirement could see "corrupt elements launch a counteroffensive and try to retrieve lost ground".
(Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Philip McClellan)