BEIJING – A former engineer whose personality and philosophy are mysteries to most Chinese became their most powerful leader Friday, appointed to guide their ruling party through economic reforms that are pushing China's doors open to a curious world.
The Communist Party, China's supreme authority, chose as its new general secretary. That made Hu, a politician on the rise for more than a decade, the de facto leader of Asia's fastest-growing economy and assured his election as president next year.
It was communist China's first orderly transfer of authority, and had been widely expected for years. Though state media never named him as President Jiang Zemin's successor, Hu's climb through the party and government made it clear that he was being groomed for the post.
In keeping with communist tradition, Jiang remained the focus to the end, his face dominating the upper front page of virtually all of Beijing's newspapers. The party's inner sanctum, the Politburo Standing Committee, is stacked with Jiang allies, and Hu, like Jiang, will have to wait years to emerge from his predecessor's shadow.
Hu takes the helm of a new generation of leaders who will guide China through sweeping changes — including market-oriented reforms that are transforming hundreds of millions of lives.
"We will live up to the great trust of the entire party and the expectations of people across the country," said Hu, 59, an owlish engineer who used to build hydroelectric power stations.
By replacing Jiang, 76, in China's top party job, Hu also becomes the odds-on choice to succeed him as president in March, taking over the government as well as the party that controls it. Jiang was re-elected to head the party military commission, ensuring he will have a continuing hand in China's rule.
In a brief ceremony that named Hu party chief, he introduced eight newly appointed members to the Standing Committee. He was the only member of the previous committee not to retire.
Previous transfers of power in China have happened through purges or, in earlier years, suspicious deaths. The last general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, remains under house arrest in Beijing after being swept aside in a power struggle for sympathizing with student protesters in 1989.
Major policy changes appeared unlikely. Hu promised to adhere to the course of economic reform and openness to the outside world set by Jiang and the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
"Chinese people of all ethnic groups will be more closely united to concentrate on construction and development in order constantly push forward China's reform, opening up and modernization," Hu told reporters inside the hulking Great Hall of the People in central Beijing. He grinned broadly as he waved at television cameras.
The new leaders replace a slate of retiring politicians who, with one exception, are in their 70s.
In choosing Hu, the party remained loyal to the wishes of Deng, who picked him as Jiang's successor. Deng, who died in 1997, installed Jiang after the crackdown on Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989.
Hu immediately credited Jiang for laying the groundwork for his leadership and the party's future.
"We firmly believe China's tomorrow will surely be better," Hu said, The introduction was broadcast live on state television.
The process that elevated Hu was cloaked in secrecy and belied China's claims to be opening its doors. Chinese media, while touting party openness, gave no indication that Hu was on the ascent.
During Hu's brief appearance Friday, the other Politburo Standing Committee members stood to his left. Directly next to Hu, in the apparent No. 2 position, was Wen Jiabao. Now vice premier, Wen is expected to replace the reform-minded Premier Zhu Rongji, who is retiring.
At the end of the line was Luo Gan, China's top law-enforcement official who is waging a public campaign to tighten controls on the Internet.
Six other younger leaders were also elevated to the Standing Committee and will have key roles in shaping policy during the next decade. Many were reportedly installed by Jiang.
Outside the Great Hall, in Tiananmen Square, security agents walked up every time a foreigner spoke to Chinese walking by. Nearby, in one of Beijing's dwindling narrow alleyways, news of Hu's appointment spread by word of mouth.
"I wish he would fix the corruption problem, but I don't have much hope," said one man who identified himself as Mr. Wang and said he was a laid-off chemical-plant worker. "We don't know if he's clean, like Zhu Rongji, or not."
Hu inherits a country booming from exports and foreign investment but threatened by massive unemployment and growing gaps in wealth as a planned economy evolves into the capitalistic "socialist market economy" devised by Deng.
And while the nation is economically freer than ever, politically it remains a virtual police state.
Hu, who oversaw China's Tibet policy for years, maintained a low, sometimes invisible profile in Chinese politics until recent months.
In 1992, Hu was elevated to the party's Politburo and, at about the same time, was picked by Deng to succeed Jiang. He was made vice president in 1998 and has also been Jiang's deputy on powerful commissions that control China's army.