Former president Jiang Zemin resigned Sunday as the head of China's military, turning the job over to his successor as president and Communist Party leader, Hu Jintao, and completing the orderly transfer of power to a younger generation.
The resignation of Jiang, 78, announced at the close of a four-day meeting of the party's Central Committee, for the first time put Hu, 61, formally in command of all the vast party, government and military bureaucracies that rule China and its 1.3 billion people.
The shift, although important for the smooth working of the Chinese government, was unlikely to produce swift or radical changes in the way the government approaches its relations with the United States, its resolve to reincorporate Taiwan into mainland China or its effort to continue moving the nation toward a market economy while maintaining growth and social stability.
A party source said Jiang and Hu, although they do not always see eye to eye, shared basic views on the course China should follow at home and abroad. Reports of differences that have surfaced with increasing intensity in recent months had more to do with competing power bases and jockeying by proteges within the party than fundamental policy differences, he said.
As an elder statesman, moreover, Jiang remains an influential behind-the-scenes figure for key policy decisions, particularly those involving overriding national interests such as the dispute over Taiwan. But his formal departure from the leadership, giving Hu authority as military chief as well as president and party leader, removes a sometimes awkward situation in which senior officers had complained of having two lines of command.
Taiwan hailed the change as a positive development for China's foreign relations in general and its relations with Taiwan in particular. Chiu Tai-san, vice chairman of the Taiwan government's Mainland Affairs Council, told the Reuters news agency in Taipei that, in his view, Hu is more likely to pursue a pragmatic Taiwan policy that grows from consensus within the Chinese leadership.
"That will be good for the international community and for Taiwan as well," he said.
Hu took over from Jiang as party leader in 2002 and replaced him as president the following year, moving into what the Communist Party calls the fourth generation of leadership after Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang. But Jiang, a former electrical engineer and mayor of Shanghai who is said to relish the limelight, had clung to his position as chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, giving him command over China's 2.2 million-member military establishment and making him a second power center. His term would have run for another three years had he not resigned.
Despite the broad accord on fundamental issues, reports had circulated in Beijing that Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao were more worried than Jiang about those left behind in China's economic boom, particularly farmers and unemployed workers. In addition, the reports said, Jiang's language when discussing Taiwan sometimes reflected the impatience of Chinese military officers with what appears to be a stagnant situation, while Hu and Wen tended to cast their remarks in a longer-term context that some analysts regarded as more flexible.
In the secrecy that marks China's leadership, the accuracy of these reports was difficult to assess. But with Jiang still in a position of authority over the military that created ambiguity about his and Hu's relative power, they were followed carefully.
China's state-run television, which devoted its entire Sunday evening newscast to the resignation, showed Jiang and Hu walking together in the Great Hall of the People, applauded by the 198-member Central Committee to mark the moment when the ambiguity ended. A newscaster said that in his resignation letter, dated Sept. 1, Jiang expressed confidence in Hu's ability to direct the military and said he had long looked forward to full retirement "for the good of the long-term development of the cause of the party and the people."
The resignation letter and a communique issued by the committee made no mention of health problems as a reason for the resignation. Family members and acquaintances had mentioned various ailments in recent weeks as speculation mounted that Jiang planned to step down.
"I just want to say three sentences," Jiang told the committee members in a televised farewell speech. "One, I want to show my sincere thanks to the Central Committee for accepting my resignation letter. Two, I want to show my sincere thanks to the comrades for your longtime help and support. Three, I hope that you work hard and keep moving forward under the Central Committee, whose secretary is Hu Jintao, and I truly believe that our party's work will achieve even greater victories."
The communique also lavished praise on Jiang's work as head of the commission and, before that, as president and party leader after being recruited from relative obscurity in Shanghai to take over following the Tiananmen Squre crackdown in 1989. It said committee members credited him with following the ideas of Mao and Deng and, in addition, "founding the Jiang Zemin theory of defense and army building."
"Under his leadership, the national defense and army modernization process has been a tremendous success," it said.
Jiang presided over a military modernization designed primarily to enable Beijing to back up its threat to use force to reunite Taiwan with the mainland if all else failed. The modernization, focusing on such things as electronics, naval power and training, has a long way to go, however, and is likely to continue at a similar pace under Hu.
The statement also paid tribute to what party officials call the Important Thought of Three Represents, Jiang's idea that the Communist Party should represent free-market business leaders and the vanguard of new thinking as well as peasants and workers who traditionally have been its base.
"The Important Thought of Three Represents is the latest outcome of the localization of Marxism in China, as well as a fundamental guideline for the realization of the magnificent goal of a relatively affluent society in an all-round way," it added. "It must be implemented in all areas of China's socialist modernization drive and be reflected in all aspects of party building."
An Internet commentator said Sunday night that "the mass of the people are now hopeful," while suggesting that Jiang's stepping down could ease efforts by Hu and Wen to improve the lot of Chinese pushed aside by free-market reforms. Many Chinese have expressed support for Wen's gestures in that regard -- for instance, ordering that migrant workers receive back pay sometimes held by employers.
"What good news," the commentator wrote. "Dear Hu, dear Wen, our people trust you. Just do your job as you will."
Jiang's departure from the military commission and Hu's increase in authority were made more complete by the failure of Jiang's close ally, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, to be named as a commission vice chairman under Hu, or even to gain a seat. Some analysts had suggested that Jiang would seek to place Zeng as a vice chairman to perpetuate his influence.
Instead, Xu Caihou, 61, an army general, was promoted from member to vice chairman, and total membership was expanded from eight to 11. Newcomers included Vice Adm. Zhang Dingfa, the navy commander, and Qiao Qingchen, the air force commander. Both branches have received higher priority within the Chinese military under modernization efforts set in motion by Jiang in recent years.
Correspondent Philip P. Pan contributed to this report.