Vice President Hu Jintao was appointed as leader of China’s Communist Party today, handing him the country’s most powerful position and making him a certain bet to replace Jiang Zemin as president next year.
His appointment as general secretary positions Hu on top of a new generation of leaders who will guide China through sweeping changes and economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping and his successor, Jiang.
Minutes later, the government said Jiang had been re-elected to head China’s powerful military commission, which ensures he will retain formal influence in the affairs of the nation.
“We will live up to the great trust of the entire party and the expectations of people across the country,” Hu, 59, said inside the hulking Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.
He said all China’s people and ethnic groups must unite to develop the economy and modernise the nation.
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, grinning broadly at times as he waved at reporters and the nation during the minutes-long appearance.
The introduction was broadcast live on state television and immediately followed by music and communist utopian imagery.
The party posts are the true power of China’s government. Although the president is the head of state in China, his power is derived from his party position. Jiang held both posts since he was named president in 1993.
After the brutal and unpredictable power politics of the Mao Zedong era, the chaotic Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square bloodshed, this transition is the first orderly one since the communists took power in 1949.
The eight other newly named members of the inner-sanctum Politburo Standing Committee include top officials Luo Gan and Wen Jiabao.
Wen, now vice premier, is expected to replace the reform-minded Premier Zhu Rongji, who is also retiring. Luo, the architect of China’s law-enforcement policies, is considered a hard-line leader who is in the midst of a campaign to tighten controls on the Internet.
Just minutes after officially stepping down as party leader, Jiang was re-elected to head China’s powerful military commission that oversees the People’s Liberation Army.
Jiang remains president until March. Hu is a sure bet to take over that post at the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature. But Jiang, 76, has installed allies on the Standing Committee and is expected to exert great influence.
Hu inherits a nation brimming with foreign investment but plagued by the problems of transforming a planned economy into the capitalistic “socialist market economy” that Jiang, like Deng before him, has encouraged.
Eastern cities are booming, while inland regions remain poor and undeveloped. Some 26 million have been thrown out of work since 1998 in the attempt to privatise or clean up state-owned industries. Corruption remains rampant despite party promises to rein it in.
And while the country is, economically, freer than ever, politically it remains a virtual police state. The transition was conducted in a Byzantine, secrecy-cloaked manner at odds with China’s claims to be flinging open its doors to the outside world.
The new leaders replace a slate of retiring politicians who, with one exception, are in their 70s. Until recently that would have been young for communist politicians. But the party is seeking to build an image of vitality and progress.
Other top figures bowing out include Li Peng, head of the legislature and a key figure in the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the crusty, reformist Zhu. Both are in their 70s.
An engineer by trade who oversaw China’s Tibet policy for years, Hu has 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.
Outside the Great Hall today, security agents walked up every time a foreigner spoke to Chinese walking by. Nearby, in one of Beijing’s 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.”
“We don’t know anything about him,” said a man selling baked sweet potatoes from the back of a handcart in Beijing. He gave only his family name, Zhou.
“It should be no big change,” Zhou said. “I don’t see a difference.”