BEIJING – Former President Jiang Zemin (search) turned over his last major post as chairman of the commission that runs China's military to his successor, Hu Jintao (search), the government said Sunday, completing the country's first peaceful leadership transition since its 1949 revolution.
Jiang, whose term was to have run until 2007, handed in his resignation during a meeting of the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The committee "approved Hu to take over the (Central Military Commission) chairmanship after accepting Jiang's resignation," Xinhua said.
The Central Committee (search) agreed that the handover is conducive to upholding "the party's absolute leadership over the military, and is also conducive to the strengthening of the military's revolutionization, modernization and regularization," Xinhua said.
Jiang's retirement ensures Hu's status as China's paramount leader by removing Jiang from the last post he had clung to, maintaining his influence even after stepping down from the party leader position he had held for 13 years.
Hu, 61, took over as party leader in 2002 and became president early the following year in a long-planned handover to younger leaders. All other leaders of Jiang's generation gave up their official posts by early 2003, but Jiang's continued grip on the military post had been awkward for Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.
It was "displeasing to most members of the Chinese leadership including the military, because it created 'two headquarters,'" said Andrew Nathan, a specialist on Chinese politics at Columbia University.
"It was a potential problem and a situation that, under People's Republic of China traditions, is not normal," Nathan said. "Sooner or later it had to be done away with."
Party leaders have been eager to have an untroubled transfer of power as they wrestle with economic and social problems including rural property, corruption and relations with rival Taiwan.
"This transfer of power is now complete," said Sin-Ming Shaw, a China analyst and a fellow at Oxford University's Oriel College in England.
Xu Caihou (search), 61, will replace Hu as deputy chairman of the military commission, Xinhua said. Xu was one of four members of the military commission and is a director in the People's Liberation Army, China's massive military.
The news agency gave no reasons why Jiang chose to leave before his term was up, but praised him as having made "outstanding contributions to the party, the state and the people."
The meeting of the 198-member Central Committee began behind closed doors on Thursday and ended Sunday, with its official agenda focusing on ways to improve party governance.
But media reports that Jiang would step down began circulating days before the meeting began.
Recent media reports have noted signs of tension between Hu and Jiang, but given China's closed and secretive political system, the speculation is virtually impossible to prove.
State television devoted its entire evening newscast to the handover, extending the program by almost 15 minutes.
An anchor read from Jiang's resignation letter, which was dated Sept. 1, saying that he had "always looked forward to complete retirement from leading positions for the good of the long-term development of the cause of the party and the people."
Jiang said he had made his decision after "meticulous consideration," adding that Hu was "absolutely qualified for this post."
Hu and Jiang were shown walking side-by-side in the cavernous Great Hall of the People and greeted by thunderous applause from the 198-member Central Committee. Dressed in a dark suit and red tie, Jiang shook hands and waved to the officials.
"I am so happy to see all of you today," Jiang said in a brief speech. "I will say three sentences. Firstly, I sincerely thank the Central Committee for accepting my resignation. Secondly, I thank you comrades for your support in my work all these years. Thirdly, I hope that everyone will work hard and keep advancing under the leadership of the party Central Committee with Comrade Hu Jintao."
Jiang, a former Shanghai mayor, was plucked from obscurity by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping to lead te party in 1989 after pro-democracy protests and an internal power struggle threatened to tear it apart. Deng nominated Hu as Jiang's successor in the early 1990s, setting in motion a succession that was just completed.