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China President Jiang Zeming Resigns, VP Hu Assumes Role

By Philip P. Pan and John Pomfret
THE WASHINGTON POST -- BEIJING

Vice President Hu Jintao, who by exercising extreme caution has survived a decade as heir apparent to the Chinese Communist leadership, took another step closer to the pinnacle of power in Beijing Thursday in the most orderly and peaceful transition in the history of modern China.

The party’s week-long 16th National Congress concluded with election of a 198-member Central Committee and agreement on the other top Communist Party posts where supreme power resides in China. The results were kept secret but the Central Committee was scheduled to meet Friday morning to confirm Hu’s rise to the top party office, general secretary, in place of President Jiang Zemin. He and six to eight other members of the Politburo’s all-powerful Standing Committee -- all newcomers who will join Hu on the committee -- then were scheduled to present themselves to Chinese and foreign journalists in the cavernous Great Hall of the People.

At 59, Hu is relatively young for China’s seniormost office. He has been scripted to round out his assumption of leadership next March during a session of the National People’s Congress, or parliament, when Jiang is to resign as president and make way for Hu to succeed him in that job as well. Jiang may at that time also give up his crucial third post, chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Hu’s appointment caps a major overhaul of the Chinese leadership, shifting it toward a younger and better-educated generation. It also dramatizes the country’s move away from the revolutionary and doctrinaire roots of the Communist Party, which has been in power since 1949.

All six of Hu’s former Standing Committee colleagues retired Thursday, as did seven other aging members of the policy-making Politburo and more than half the Central Committee. Generals of the People’s Liberation Army over the age of 70 on the Central Committee stepped down as well, presaging a sweeping reshuffle at the top of the world’s largest army. And several senior ministers left the committee, signaling important changes in the Chinese Cabinet when the legislature meets next March.

But Jiang appeared to have succeeded in stacking the Standing Committee with several close allies among the newcomers. That means Jiang, 76, who formally stepped down as general secretary Thursday after 13 years in power, will remain behind the scenes and will continue to have a say in the nation’s affairs.

The leading contenders for the top party jobs were all engineers, men in their 50s or 60s who came of age in Mao Tse-tung’s destructive Cultural Revolution and rose to powerful positions in Beijing and the provinces after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.