Sunday's departure of Jiang Zemin as head of China's military was a surprise, though rumors of a power struggle with current president Hu Jintao circled Beijing for weeks.
The vote to accept Mr. Jiang's resignation on the last day of a bi-yearly communist party plenum is likely to relieve some of the bitter infighting between Jiang and Hu factions that has thwarted decision making in the world's most populous nation, analysts say.
Jiang, who oversaw China's rapid economic development in the past decade, including the acceptance of capitalists in the communist party, was China's top ruler until 2002 - when he gave up his post to President Hu in a reshuffle designed to usher in a "fourth generation" of leaders. Yet Jiang, still regarded as the most powerful politician in China, had retained a firm grip on the Central Military Commission. From this position, he initiated a major modernizing of China's military, wielded authority on the most sensitive policies on Taiwan and North Korea, and met foreign officials such as US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice last June.
A number of prominent American scholars argue that Jiang's half-in, half-out official status over the past two years has caused confusion and a "paralysis of policy," as Richard Baum of UCLA puts it, at upper echelons of power in Beijing. The emotional issue of Taiwan, for example, was made "more dangerous and uncertain" in Mr. Baum's view, due to a "lack of flexibility" among top leaders.
"As long as Jiang is in power, Hu is scrutinized and can't make mistakes. China's policy is much more tentative, and questions like Taiwan are held captive," says Mr. Baum.
Jiang had been identified with a policy of aggressive growth, a strong military, and improved US ties. Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, expressing concern with income disparities, have carved out a position as friends of ordinary Chinese, and have so far looked more to Europe than the US.
The shakeup "should loosen up the system and allow for more experimentation," says David Zweig, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
A 45-minute report last evening on state TV had all the symbolic trappings of a farewell to Jiang. Hu will take over the military post to ensure "the party's absolute leadership over the military." Hu's biography and achievements were detailed. In unusually emotional rhetoric, Jiang's resignation letter stated he "always wanted to resign," but that he stayed on because the party asked him to out of concern "for the international situation at that time."
Yet Jiang's departure may in fact increase his influence, though this remains unclear.
Jiang has spent over a decade building a set of ideologically loyal supporters, most of whom are still in power. Some analysts say Jiang is stepping down partly because he now has consolidated enough clout, and would like to elevate himself into legendary status as his predecessor, Deng Xiao Ping, was able to do.
Jiang, however, never seemed to capture the popular imagination the way Deng, a revolutionary figure in Chinese history, was able to do. Instead, the power struggle with Hu was beginning to frustrate many mid-level officials, some of whom privately felt it "unseemly."
"The lack of sympathy for Jiang was growing and hiding how much Jiang accomplished," says a Western scholar in Beijing. "Chinese today no longer want a cult figure like Mao. The tradition now is, when the leader steps down, the next generation should be free to rule. Jiang's presence was thwarting that; by stepping down he will regain sympathy and stature."
He may gain more than that. While Hu will take over Jiang's post as chair of the Central Military Commission, Jiang's close ally, Xu Caihou, will become vice-chair. Jiang retains close relations with nearly every member of the nine-member Standing Committee, China's top political body.
Jiang came to power in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of democracy protesters that implicitly put this country on a path toward economic but not political reform. Jiang was reportedly seen as attractive since he was not associated with the decision to crack down on students, but was held in esteem for quickly putting down protests in Shanghai, where he was party secretary.
Jiang was originally cast after Tiananmen as a transitional figure. Instead, he proved a shrewd politician who not only outlasted most of his contemporaries, but in recent years has attempted to carve out a place in modern Chinese history through his theory, known as the "Three Represents." The theory attempts to provide an ideological bridge between past communist thought and a future based on market systems.
The new situation in China leaves Hu more officially in charge. Last week Hu spoke in a highly conservative mode at the 50th anniversary of the National Party Congress, stating that the Western parliamentary system was not suitable for China, and that the communist party did not need to experiment with dramatic reforms. Many observers saw the speech as an affirmation by Hu that he would not take China down the reform path of the former Soviet Union.