By Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China is set to promote two rising stars and possible future national leaders at a Communist Party congress opening next week, one taking the old job of disgraced former high-flyer Bo Xilai in the country's biggest metropolis, sources said.
Southwestern Chongqing, left reeling in the wake of a corruption and murder scandal, is expected to go to Sun Zhengcai, a former agriculture minister and current party boss of the chilly northeastern province of Jilin.
The export powerhouse of Guangdong in the south, facing an economic slowdown due to the global downturn along with rising social tensions, will probably be handed to Inner Mongolia party boss Hu Chunhua, sources with ties to the leadership told Reuters.
China has in the past groomed potential future top leaders in posts as party boss - the most powerful position - of a series of provinces, where senior leaders can assess their performance in increasingly high-profile roles.
Leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping worked his way up from a fairly lowly position in the arid province of Hebei to the wealthier coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang and then eventually party boss of Shanghai.
"Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai are very young and being groomed to become (the country's) sixth-generation leaders" after the governments headed by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and president-designate Xi, one source told Reuters, requesting anonymity to prevent repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics.
Sun and Hu, both 49, are emblematic of younger officials of humbler backgrounds who stand apart from the refined, urban backgrounds of the likes of Xi and other so-called "princelings" - the descendants of former senior revolutionary leaders.
This new generation has shown a keener sense of the inequalities facing China, from environmental devastation to the rich-poor divide, factors that will shape the future.
"Given their age, at the end of this period, if their performance is satisfactory, they'll become the top leaders following the path of Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping and (premier-in-waiting) Li Keqiang," said Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.
Sun is an agricultural expert who once ran a fertilizer factory and spent much of his early professional life in a rural part of Beijing. He became agriculture minister in 2008.
While Hu Chunhua and Hunan party boss Zhou Qiang are also in the running to become Chongqing's party boss, the job is most likely to go to Sun, the sources said.
"Sun Zhengcai has arrived in Chongqing for a handover (of power)," a second source said. "If he does not get it due to last-minute changes, he could become vice premier in charge of agriculture."
Sun will have to deal with the legacy of the man at the centre of China's biggest political scandal in decades in Chongqing, currently being run on a temporary basis by Zhang Dejiang.
The party has accused Bo of abuse of power, corruption and hampering the murder investigation of a British businessman because his wife was the suspect. She has since been jailed.
Bo's expulsion from the party drew an outcry from his leftist supporters and highlighted the deep rifts his prosecution could inflame. Bo remains popular in Chongqing for his social programs and city improvement efforts.
"Now he's given the task of Chongqing to clean up the mess. That's a very challenging task obviously," Cheng said of Sun. "The same applies to Hu Chunhua. Guangdong is a big province with a lot of potential to show that he can secure a good performance."
Hu Chunhua spent two decades in restive and remote Tibet, where he came under the wing of Hu Jintao. In Inner Mongolia, Hu Chunhua has overseen rapid economic growth and dealt successfully with protests last year by ethnic Mongols.
The two Hus are not related despite sharing a family name.
One of the biggest issues for Hu Chunhua in Guangdong would be that he only previously worked in much poorer parts of the country, meaning he will face a different set of challenges.
"It will be the first time Hu Chunhua has worked in a relatively developed province," the first source said.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Jason Subler and Nick Macfie)