The No. 2 man in China's Communist Party was named today 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 the top legislative post was the first in a series of moves expected today as China's legislature votes for a handover of power that will usher in a new generation of leaders _ its first orderly political succession since the 1949 revolution.
Wu replaces Li Peng, who was second ranked in the previous Politburo Standing Committee.
The legislature is almost certain to name Hu Jintao to replace President Jiang Zemin, endorsing a choice made by the Communist Party. Groomed for more than a decade to lead his vast nation, the 60-year-old Hu was named party leader in November.
Jiang, 76, will retain influence by keeping a key post as chairman of the Central Military Commission that runs the 2.5 million-strong People's Liberation Army.
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 will happen inside the cavernous Great Hall of the People, decorated with huge red stars and plush red carpet.
China's new leaders will 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 any 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 _ a sign that he is more likely than ever to get the top job.
"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. Currently vice president, 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.
Despite his new powers, Hu will be surrounded by a nine-member Standing Committee that Jiang loaded with his own allies before stepping down.
And for at least the near future, Jiang will remain very much a part of the nation's power structure as head of the military commission.
Jiang's decision to keep that post raises uncertainty about the new party hierarchy and the stability of Hu's leadership, says Ding Xueliang, a former Communist Party official and professor of social sciences at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology.