Vice President Hu Jintao was appointed today to the powerful committee that oversees China's military, sending a strong signal that he is being groomed to become China's next leader.

Hu's appointment as vice chairman of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, announced at the conclusion of a major party conclave, makes him only the second civilian on the elite body, chaired by President Jiang Zemin.

Political analysts say Jiang is readying Hu to replace him as president in 2002 when Jiang's term ends. Hu, 56, has taken an increasingly high profile since being named vice president last year.

As the youngest member of China's senior leadership, the former hydraulic engineer presents a fresh face for China. But Chinese and foreign observers say Hu comes from a decidedly conservative mold. Chinese liberals note that Hu, unlike other senior leaders, has never traveled to the United States. He also oversaw a harsh crackdown while Communist Party secretary in Tibet until 1992.

Hu has overseen ideological and propaganda work and is president of the Communist Party School. In a televised speech last May, he offered the government's first response to the NATO bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade. He has also been a key campaigner against the banned Falun Gong sect.