China's president, Hu Jintao, replaced Jiang Zemin as the country's military chief and de facto top leader on Sunday, state media announced, completing the first orderly transfer of power in the history of China's Communist Party.
Hu, who became Communist Party chief in 2002 and president in 2003, now commands the state, the military and the ruling party. He will set both foreign and domestic policy in the world's most populous country, which now has the world's seventh-largest economy and is rapidly emerging as a great power.
The transition marks a significant victory for Hu, a relatively unknown product of the Communist Party machine. He has solidified control of China's most powerful posts at a younger age _ he is now 61 _ than any Chinese leader since Mao Tse-tung, and is now likely to be able govern relatively unimpeded by powerful elders.
Jiang's resignation, which came as a surprise to many party officials who expected the tenacious elder leader to cling to power for several more years, came after tensions between Jiang and Hu began to affect policymaking in the one-party state, the New York Times reported, quoting unnamed officials and political analysts.
Jiang, 78, appeared robust in recent public appearances and was widely described as determined to keep his job _ and even expand his authority _ until he submitted a letter of resignation this month.
The leadership transition was announced Sunday in a terse dispatch by the New China News Agency, followed by a 45-minute broadcast on China Central Television. Jiang and Hu appeared side by side, smiling, shaking hands and praising each other profusely in front of applauding members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which formally accepted Jiang's resignation and Hu's promotion at the conclusion of its four-day annual session.
Jiang's offer to retire was given no advance publicity in state media. China Central Television read Jiang's resignation letter on its evening broadcast, emphasizing that his resignation was voluntary. The letter was dated Sept. 1.
Even by the strict standards of secrecy within the party, the decision about Jiang's fate was closely held. For the vast majority of the 70-million party members, not to mention the general public, there had been no indication that Jiang was planning to retire.
Since the Communists defeated the Nationalists in a civil war and took control of China in 1949, the party has repeatedly failed to execute orderly successions. All three of the men chosen by Mao to succeed him were purged before they could consolidate power, two of them by Mao himself and the third by Deng Xiaoping after Mao's death in 1976.
Deng also anointed and then cashiered two successors before elevating Jiang from the middling rank of Shanghai party chief to China's highest posts, in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on dissent in 1989.
The most recent transition looked similarly compromised when Jiang maneuvered to keep control of the military in 2002. Party officials said Hu had been slated to inherit full power at that time and that his failure to control the military forced him to operate in Jiang's shadow.
But Jiang's retirement suggests that the party now operates more according to the consensus of its elite members than the whims of its most senior leader.
Hu, a poker-faced bureaucrat who rarely if ever traveled outside China before he rose to the most senior ranks in the late 1990s, has sent mixed signals about his intentions. He deftly handled the first big crisis of his leadership in the spring of 2003, when China faced the SARS epidemic that top health officials had initially covered up. Hu sacked two senior officials and ordered a broad mobilization to combat the disease, which was controlled within weeks.
He has sought to draw a contrast with Jiang's aristocratic image, making trips to China's poorest areas and shunning some conspicuous perks. He pledged to raise the incomes of workers and peasants and redirect more state spending to areas left behind in China's long economic boom.
Little is known about Hu personally beyond a few random facts offered by the propaganda machine, including his enthusiasm for pingpong and what is described as a photographic memory.