BEIJING -- Hu Jintao became the undisputed leader of China as the country completed its first orderly transfer of power in the communist era on Sunday with the departure of former President Jiang Zemin from his top military post -- giving a new generation a freer hand to run the world's most populous nation. Jiang, whose term was to have run until 2007, resigned at a meeting of the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee that ended Sunday. Analysts did not expect Jiang's exit to affect Beijing's stance on relations with the United States or Taiwan, economic reform or other key issues. Jiang and Hu are not known to have had any major policy disagreements and both support continued capitalist-style reforms and one-party communist rule. But the consolidation of the top party, government and military posts in Hu's hands will allow him and his premier, Wen Jiabao, to act more decisively as the government copes with challenges such as wrenching economic changes and rural poverty.
Hu, 61, replaced Jiang as party leader in late 2002 and as president early the next year. But the 78-year-old Jiang, who led China for 13 years, retained influence by holding onto his military post even as all his contemporaries retired in a long-planned handover of power to younger leaders.
"This is a good, positive step because it finally completes the systemic change," said Sin-ming Shaw, a China specialist at Oxford University's Oriel College. "To have someone as chairman of the party and not control the guns is very awkward. This will definitely make things easier."
A statement by the 198-member Central Committee said the handover of power was conducive to upholding "the party's absolute leadership over the military," the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said Jiang's resignation showed "his broad-mindedness as a true communist."
State television devoted its entire evening newscast to the transfer of power, extending the half-hour program by 15 minutes.
An anchor read from Jiang's resignation letter, dated Sept. 1, saying 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."
There was no immediate indication why Jiang chose to cut short his term. But it might suggest that he felt he had succeeded in ensuring his political legacy -- especially the addition of the pro-capitalist "Three Represents" ideology that he championed to the party's constitution -- and the interests of his family and allies.
The ideology, stripped down, invites entrepreneurs into the party, redefining communism and daring critics to point out ideological contradictions.
The party spent nearly a decade preparing for the handover, hoping to avoid the upheavals that have accompanied earlier transfers of power.
China's communist founder, Mao Zedong, picked Hua Guofeng to succeed him on his death in 1976. But Hua lasted only a few months before being pushed aside by Deng Xiaoping, who went on to launch reforms that fueled China's two-decade economic boom.
Deng dismissed his own hand-picked successor, Zhao Ziyang, in 1989 after the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations and a power struggle that nearly tore apart the party. Jiang, a former Shanghai mayor, was almost unknown when Deng picked him to succeed Zhao and later to lead the nation. Zhao still lives under house arrest more than 15 years later.
Deng himself nominated Hu as Jiang's eventual successor in the early 1990s.
Jiang said in his resignation letter that he decided to leave the Central Military Commission after "meticulous consideration." He said Hu was "absolutely qualified for this post."
State television showed Hu and Jiang walking side-by-side in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in central Beijing, greeted by thunderous applause from the Central Committee members as they posed for photos. 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. He called for the party to "work hard and keep advancing under the leadership of the party Central Committee with Comrade Hu Jintao."
Xu Caihou, 61, will succeed Hu as deputy chairman of the military commission, Xinhua said.
That was a surprise choice, because many had expected Vice President Zeng Qinghong -- a former Jiang aide and protege -- to become deputy leader of the commission. It wasn't clear whether Jiang had lobbied for Zeng and whether the choice reflected a personal setback.
The 2.5 million-member People's Liberation Army is the world's largest military.
In a society where Mao declared that "power flows from the barrel of a gun," the chairmanship of the military commission was the second-most powerful post for a Chinese leader, after the job of party general secretary. The presidency, though high-profile, came a distant third, with few formal powers.
Pressure had been building within the party for Jiang to hand over the military post, consolidating power under a single leader, said Andrew Nathan, a specialist on Chinese politics at Columbia University.
It was "displeasing to most members of the Chinese leadership including the military, because it created 'two headquarters,"' Nathan said.
"It was a potential problem and a situation that, under People's Republic of China traditions, is not normal," he said. "Sooner or later it had to be done away with."
Joseph Cheng, director of the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong, said Jiang has "no cause to complain" about his legacy.
"His so called 'Three Represents' theory has been entered into the state constitution and the party charter. Most of his proteges have been given very important appointments," Cheng said. "Basically he has more or less what a departing leader can hope to achieve."
Despite his newly powerful position, Hu is surrounded by Jiang allies on the party's ruling nine-member Standing Committee, though it isn't clear whether the former president will try to retain influence without a formal post.
"The other retired elders ... have not interfered in politics or policy matters since the 2002 transition," Nathan said. "I anticipate Jiang will be bound by the same norms. He'll be informed of policy issues and decisions, but will mind his own business."