China's Xi kicks off congress with formal election in ally's province

FILE PHOTO: China's President Xi Jinping arrives for the third plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 12, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping was formally elected on Thursday as a delegate to an important Communist Party congress this year, when he will seek to consolidate power, as a representative of a province run by an ally and a candidate for promotion.

The once-every-five-years congress will see Xi further cement his hold on power by appointing allies into the party's ruling inner core, the 25-member Politburo and the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

A party meeting in the poor southwestern province of Guizhou elected Xi unanimously as one of their delegates to the congress, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The dates of the congress have not been announced.

While a foregone conclusion, as party members are chosen for their loyalty and ability to follow instructions, Xi's election formally starts for him China's most important political event of the year, the congress, as he has to be a provincial delegate to attend.

Though Xinhua did not explain why Xi would be representing Guizhou - in China's largely rubber stamp parliament he represents the commercial hub of Shanghai - the province's top official, Chen Miner, is a trusted confidant of Xi.

Chen has at times ridden on the coat-tails of his former boss since they worked together in Zhejiang province, where Xi was provincial party leader.

Sources with leadership ties have told Reuters that Chen could jump straight into the Standing Committee during the congress, in what would be a show of just how strong Xi is, rather than him having to appoint leaders from competing power bases.

In national politics, Chen is only a member of the 205-member Central Committee, and an elevation to the Standing Committee, which has ultimate power over the world's second-largest economy, would involve a two-step promotion, missing out the Politburo.

Xinhua made no mention of Chen though he was almost certainly one of the delegates who chose Xi, but said Xi's election was accompanied by long, enthusiastic applause.

For decades, Guizhou was one of China's most backward provinces, but in recent years the central government has poured in billions of yuan, with a focus on poverty alleviation and big data.

Xi's election to represent Guizhou was a great honour for the province and big impetus for its fight against poverty, Xinhua reported.

"When I heard the news that the general secretary had been unanimously elected, I was extremely excited. This is yearned for by the public and commands their support," one of Xi's electors, Liu Fang, told Xinhua.

Provincial party branches are now choosing a total of 2,300 delegates to the congress, a process that will be completed by June, Xinhua added.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)