President Hu Jintao broke with precedent on Wednesday when he simultaneously relinquished the leadership of the Central Military Commission and Chinese Communist Party in favor of his successor, Xi Jinping.
While Xi was widely expected to be named general secretary of the ruling party during its Eighteenth National Congress in Beijing, it was unclear whether he would also immediately take Hu’s place on the Central Military Commission, the body that controls the army. Hu could have waited until March of next year to hand over the post, when Xi is set to become president and will then be head of army, party and state, or even longer, as his own predecessor, Jiang Zemin, did.
Jiang, whose behind the scenes influence was apparent in the Politburo appointments that were revealed on Wednesday, kept the military post for two years after stepping down as president in 2003. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s market reforms, similarly retained control of the army when he relinquished his other titles in 1987.
Hu’s decision to simultaneously step down from the party and military leadership sets a new precedent in what is only the second bloodless shift in generational leadership in modern Chinese history. It will give his successor greater leeway in setting both domestic and foreign policy, even if it is arrived at it by consensus among the seven members that form the Politburo’s Standing Committee.
Five of the Standing Committee’s members, including Xi, are considered allies of former president Jiang Zemin’s. Premier Li Keqiang, who replaces Wen Jiabao, is the highest profile Hu protégé. As one diplomat told The New York Times, “the Shanghai crowd has won a decisive victory,” referring to Jiang’s former power base.
Because the Central Military Commission is both a party and a state body, Hu will remain chairman in the eyes of the parliament until March when the legislature is expected to confirm the party’s decision. In the meantime, the military technically has two chiefs: Xi as chosen by the party and Hu as the government’s lame-duck version.