BEIJING – President Hu Jintao stepped aside as ruling party leader Wednesday to clear the way for Vice President Xi Jinping to take China's helm as part of only the second orderly transfer of power in 63 years of Communist rule.
In a possible break from tradition, Hu may also be giving up his post as head of the commission that oversees the military, which would give Xi greater leeway to consolidate his authority when he takes over. A top general indicated Hu would not stay on in the military post.
Hu and other senior leaders mostly in their late 60s are handing over power to leader-in-waiting Xi and other colleagues in their late 50s over the next several months. The new leadership faces daunting challenges including slowing growth in the world's No. 2 economy, rising unrest among increasingly assertive citizens and delicate relations with neighboring countries.
In keeping with the widely anticipated succession plans, Hu was not re-elected a member of the party's Central Committee on the final day of a pivotal party congress, showing that he's no longer in the political leadership.
Delegates said they cheered when the announced results of secret balloting showed that Xi had been unanimously chosen for the committee, a step toward being named to the topmost panel, the Politburo Standing Committee, and becoming party leader as expected on Thursday. Li Keqiang, designated as the next premier, also was elected to the Central Committee of 205 full members.
"We were very happy, and the whole assembly responded with warm applause," said delegate Si Zefu, president of the Dongfang Electric Corp. based in the central city of Chengdu.
Previous outgoing leaders, including former President Jiang Zemin, have held onto the military post for a transitional period to extend their grip on power. Asked by Hong Kong reporters if Hu would retain his chairmanship of the military commission, Zhang Qinsheng, deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, said the central leadership "had no such arrangements."
Zhang Lifan, an independent scholar in Beijing, said relinquishing all posts would be Hu's contribution to China's political reform.
"It will be an important political legacy, as he will break the bad tradition of holding onto power by outgoing officials," he said.
As the final day of the secretive, weeklong congress drew to a close in the Great Hall of the People, and after reporters were invited in to watch the proceedings, Hu reminded party leaders of the "glorious mission and heavy responsibilities" entrusted to them.
"We must strive to be role models, bring out our best in working for the cause of the party and the country," he said.
Sitting on the dais of leaders next to Hu was his predecessor, the 86-year-old Jiang, who has emerged as a key power-broker, maneuvering his allies into the leadership at the expense of Hu. Jiang had to be helped up by attendants when congress members stood for the Communist anthem, the Internationale. Afterward, Jiang turned to Hu and shook hands before being escorted offstage.
Hu later picked up some papers, shook hands with people in the row behind him and walked off the stage.
The party's 2,200-plus delegates also rubber-stamped the report Hu delivered last week committing the party to continuing a pro-economic growth agenda while retaining firm political control. Hu urged stronger measures to rein in corruption and make the government more responsive to public demands, but offered little in the way of specifics.
The next lineup of China's most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, will be announced on Thursday. Though congress and Central Committee delegates have some influence over leadership decisions, most of the lineup is decided among a core group of the most powerful party members and elders.
The congress votes are "fully democratic" but "there is a degree of inevitability," actor and party delegate Song Guofeng of Liaoning province said as he entered the hall Wednesday.
"We need to have continuity in leadership to carry on," Song said. "They are already in the leadership core. The stability of the party and of the country is important."
Xi and Li — part of a generation schooled at a time of more openness to the West than their predecessors — were inducted into the leadership five years ago and are shoo-ins for the Standing Committee. But other positions on the panel were believed up for grabs and the subject of intense jockeying ahead of the congress.
The committee currently has nine members but may be reduced to seven. Wang Qishan, another vice premier, was named to the party's disciplinary body in a sign he would likely be named to the top committee.
China's leadership transitions are always occasions for fractious backroom bargaining, but this one has been further complicated by scandals that have fed public cynicism that their leaders are more concerned with power and wealth than government.
In recent months, Bo Xilai, a senior politician seen as a rising star, was purged after his aide exposed that his wife had murdered a British businessman. An ally of Hu's was sidelined after his son died in the crash of a Ferrari he shouldn't have been able to afford. And foreign media recently reported that relatives of Xi and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao have amassed vast wealth. The scandals have weakened Hu, on whose watch they occurred.
Hu took over as party boss in 2002 in the first power transfer that did not involve the death of a leader or the unseating of a designated successor.
He will remain in the largely ceremonial post of president until March. Whether or not he remains head of the military commission should be confirmed Thursday.
In a nod to Hu's 10 years in power, the congress upgraded his pet theory, the Scientific Outlook on Development, to rank alongside other key schools of thought in the party constitution such as Marxism-Leninsim and Mao Zedong Thought. Hu's program called for more balanced growth in an attempt to distribute benefits more fairly across society.
The congress is a largely ceremonial gathering of representatives — mostly carefully selected from the national and provincial political and military elite. The real deal-making for the top positions is done behind the scenes by the true power-holders. The newly selected Central Committee meets Thursday to select the next Politburo of about two dozen members and from that, the Politburo Standing Committee.
Associated Press writers Chris Bodeen, Didi Tang and Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this report.