China's ruling Communist Party on Saturday promoted an ally of the country's likely next president to a key position ahead of a party congress where a younger generation of leaders will be named, in a sign they are consolidating their power.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Li Zhanshu, 62, has been appointed director of the general office of the party's central committee.

Li is thought to be a close ally of Xi Jinping, who is expected to become party leader and the country's next president. Li and Xi were county party chiefs in north China's Hebei province at the same time in the 1980s. Li has been party chief for southwest China's Guizhou province since 2010.

As head of the executive office, Li will be responsible for personnel arrangements for the party's top leaders. A comparable position in U.S. politics is the president's chief of staff.

Li will replace Ling Jihua, a loyal aide and confidante to outgoing President Hu Jintao.

In Communist Party politics, the outgoing leader — who has built a support base while in office — typically attempts to retain power after leaving office, a check on the new administration.

Xi is believed not to have a strong base within the party, but the appointment of Li ahead of the party congress shows Xi is gaining power, said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics at Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. Such personnel changes usually occur during or after the party congress.

"It is a victory for Xi Jinping," he said. "This is a huge personnel change, because the position is very, very important."

The Communist Party has not announced the dates for the congress, though observers say it is likely to take place in mid to late October.

Xinhua said Ling, 55, has been named head of the United Front Work Department, another key position in the central committee. Ling is thought to be young enough to rise further in the party ranks, likely giving Hu continued influence in the party.

But Ling now has no chance of a seat on the powerful standing committee of the Politburo, although he may still become a regular Politburo member, Li from Brookings said.