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New generation takes power in China

Hu Jintao was selected today to replace Jiang Zemin as the president of a fast-changing China, the last major step in a sweeping transition to a younger generation of leaders that has been years in the making.

Hu, 60, who was vice president, claims the top post four months after ascending to the acme of China's ruling Communist Party, the most powerful position in the land. Jiang, 76, stayed on as leader of the government's military commission _ and is expected to wield significant influence from behind the scenes.

Delegates voted 2,937 to 7 to elevate Hu _ a vote largely considered to be a party rubber stamp. Hu and Jiang shook hands as the outgoing leader grinned. The two exchanged a quiet comment as delegates applauded.

Though the presidency has few official powers in China, Hu's elevation to it _ and the prestige it brings on the world stage _ reinforces his status as the country's new paramount leader.

Earlier, the No. 2 man in China's Communist Party was named to lead its nominal legislature, a ceremonial post that nonetheless reflects his power in the inner-circle hierarchy of men who run the world's most populous nation.

The announcement of 61-year-old technocrat Wu Bangguo to replace Li Peng, who was second ranked in the previous Politburo Standing Committee, came as China's legislature voted for a handover of power _ its first orderly political succession since the 1949 revolution.

The result of the balloting is widely believed to have already been dictated from the top levels of the Communist Party, the true seat of power in China.

"I'm excited to be able to vote. I feel a great responsibility," said Liu Jude, a military delegate to the legislature.

The National People's Congress is expected to name Vice Premier Wen Jiabao to succeed retiring Premier Zhu Rongji in the country's top economic post.

The transfer of power occurred inside the cavernous Great Hall of the People, decorated with huge red stars and plush red carpet.

China's new leaders take charge of an increasingly capitalist society of 1.3-billion people that is struggling to cope with its entry into the World Trade Organization.

Despite its social and economic transformations, China's communist political system has resisted change _ a closed, secretive system that harshly punishes dissent and moves regarded as threats to its monopoly on power.

Some Chinese expressed hope that the new leaders would breathe new life into government.

"The new group of leaders is relatively young and that's good. They will have more energy to go out and investigate and see what's really going on," Wu Yiwu, 76, a retired civil servant, said.

On Friday, a top Communist Party official appealed for support for the party's economic reforms and for Hu.

"Let us closely unite around the party Central Committee with Hu Jintao as general secretary ... (and) continuously work toward socialism with Chinese characteristics," said Jia Qinglin, who was named with Hu in November to the party's ruling Standing Committee. He was addressing the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a top-level advisory body to the legislature.

Hu was picked in the early 1990s by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping as the top contender to succeed Jiang. Hu spent the past decade handling increasingly demanding tasks meant to test him and prepare him for leadership. Most recently, he held top party management posts handling promotions and other sensitive business.

His first big test came after NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which Washington insisted was a mistake. Hu was the government's public face, making his first major speech on Chinese television during anti-U.S. and British rioting that followed.