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Senior Leader Resigns in China, Leaving President in Full Control


BEIJING, Sept. 19 -- President Hu Jintao of China replaced Jiang Zemin as the country's military chief and de facto top leader today, state media announced, completing the first orderly transfer of power in Communist Party history.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Zedong, and is now likely to be able govern relatively unimpeded by powerful elders.

Mr. 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 Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu began to affect policy making in the one-party state, some officials and political analysts said.

Mr. Jiang, 78, may be suffering from health problems, several people informed about leadership debates said. But he has 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 earlier this month.

The leadership transition was announced today in a terse dispatch by the New China News Agency followed by a 45-minute broadcast on China Central Television. Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu appeared side-by-side, smiling, shaking hands and praising each other profusely before applauding members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which formally accepted Mr. Jiang's resignation and Mr. Hu's promotion at the conclusion of its four-day annual session.

Mr. Jiang's offer to retire, which was first reported by The New York Times earlier this month, was given no advance publicity in state media. China Central Television read the text of Mr. Jiang's resignation letter on its evening broadcast, stressing that his resignation was voluntary. The letter was dated Sept. 1.

"In consideration of the long-term development of the party's and people's collective endeavors, I have always looked forward to fully retiring from all leadership posts," Mr. Jiang wrote, according to an official transcript of his letter. He says Mr. Hu "is fully qualified to take up this position."

Even by the strict standards of secrecy within the party, the decision about Mr. 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 Mr. Jiang was planning to retire, and his abrupt departure seems likely to increase the sense that the most important personnel decisions are made without broad consultation.

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 Zedong 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 in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on dissent in 1989 elevating Mr. Jiang from the middling rank of Shanghai party chief to China's highest posts.

The most recent transition looked similarly compromised when Mr. Jiang maneuvered to keep control of the military in 2002. Party officials said Mr. Hu had been slated to inherit full power at that time and that his failure to control the military forced him to operate in Mr. Jiang's shadow.

But Mr. Jiang's retirement suggests that the party now operates more according to the consensus of its elite members rather than the whims of its most senior leader.

Moreover, Mr. Jiang did not appear to have extracted any special concessions as the price of his retirement. Notably, he failed to arrange for Vice President Zeng Qinghong to be elevated to the Central Military Commission. Party officials had said that they expected Mr. Zeng, a longtime prot¨¦g¨¦ and ally of Mr. Jiang, to become either a regular member or a vice chairman of the commission.

Xu Caihou, a military officer in charge of propaganda work, was promoted today to replace Mr. Hu as a vice chairman of the commission. He will serve along with Cao Gangchuan, the defense minister, and Gen. Guo Boxiong.

The number of regular members of the commission was expanded to seven from four, adding representatives from the navy, air force and the unit in charge of China's nuclear arsenal.

Mr. Hu, a poker-faced bureaucrat who served most of his career in inland provinces and rarely if ever traveled outside China before he rose to the most senior ranks in the late 1990's, has sent mixed signals about how he intends to rule.

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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

"Use power for the people, show concern for the people and seek benefit for the people," Mr. Hu said in remarks early in his term as party chief. He has allowed state media to refer to him as a populist, though his rise through the ranks has not depended on popular support.

Little is known about Mr. Hu personally beyond a few random facts offered by the propaganda machine, including his enthusiasm for ping-pong and what is described as his photographic memory. In official settings, he is a much less colorful figure than Mr. Jiang, who crooned "Love Me Tender" at an Asian diplomatic gathering and was fond of quoting Jefferson and reciting the "Gettysburg Address" to visiting Americans.

It seems highly unlikely that Mr. Hu is a closet liberal. Editors and journalists say he has tightened media controls. He has presided over a crackdown on online discussion by jailing people who express anti-government views on the Internet.

"My general impression is that Hu is a Communist of the old mode," said Alfred Chan, professor of politics at Huron College in Canada who is conducting a study of the new leadership. "His career has been totally shaped by the Communist system. I think many expectations of him are exaggerated because he works under the constraints of party discipline."

In a speech delivered last week, he referred to Western-style democracy as a "blind alley" for China. He has a plan for political reform, but it mostly involves injecting some transparency and competitiveness within the single-party system to make officials police themselves better.

In foreign affairs, Mr. Hu deferred largely to Mr. Jiang. Mr. Jiang relished his role as a statesman and was proud of having built a nonconfrontational, sometimes even cordial relationship with the United States.

Mr. Hu is not expected to alter course substantially. But party officials say that he has tended to emphasize relations with China's neighbors and with Europe over ties with the United States and Japan.

He faces two major foreign policy tests that Mr. Jiang leaves unresolved. One involves North Korea, China's longtime ally, which American officials say is on the verge of becoming a full-scale nuclear power. Chinese officials worry that if Pyongyang formally goes nuclear other Asian countries, notably Japan, could follow.

China is also deeply worried about how to handle Taiwan under President Chen Shui-bian, who many here believe intends to move the island, which China claims as its sovereign territory, toward independence.

Mr. Jiang steered China toward a tougher rhetorical and military posture toward Taiwan, even as the Bush administration expanded military aid to the island. Mr. Hu has not shown any signs of changing course, but some analysts believe he may experiment with a more flexible approach if he does not have to worry about having his nationalist credentials second-guessed by Mr. Jiang.

Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang did not publicly spar. But there were signs that their relationship had become strained. Mr. Jiang rejected a framework for China's emergence as a great power that Mr. Hu supported. The policy framework, known by the slogan "peaceful rise," was dismissed by Mr. Jiang as too soft at a time when China was threatening Taiwan with military force.

Mr. Hu and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao, have also had to battle internally to curtail wasteful state spending and cool the overheated economy. Some regional leaders are thought to have looked to Mr. Jiang as a counterweight to Mr. Hu because they see the elder leader as a champion of fast economic growth supported by heavy state investment.

"It may be that Hu will no longer have to worry that Jiang will contest his decisions, and that could make decision-making smoother," said Frederick Teiwes, an expert on elite politics at the University of Sydney.

Some people who have visited Mr. Jiang or spoken with his relatives say he has suffered health problems lately, offering one possible explanation for his unexpected retirement.

But Mr. Jiang is also thought to have come under heavy pressure within the party, and even within the military, to follow the example of Deng and withdraw from public life before health problems force him to do so. Mr. Hu also made a veiled call for Mr. Jiang to step aside when he lavished praise on Mr. Deng's decision to retire early during ceremonies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the late leader's birth in August.

Chris Buckley contributed reporting for this article.(New York Times)

(09/19/2004 19:45)

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