But now all that may be changing. According to a senior Party official, in the days before the Sept. 16-19 Central Committee meeting in Beijing, the two reached an agreement whereby Jiang would step down, completing a leadership transition that began when Hu became Communist Party secretary in 2002. With Jiang out of the picture, Hu will assume China's most powerful position—commander of the world's largest standing army—and become the nation's uncontested top leader.
The transfer of power may not result in dramatic changes. Hu has differed from Jiang on some domestic and international issues, but he is unlikely to introduce sweeping new political reforms. Last week, in a speech celebrating the National People's Congress, China's legislature, Hu said that Western-style democracy was a "blind alley" that China should avoid.
Nor will Jiang's retirement give Hu an entirely free hand. The highest source of real power in China is the Party's Standing Committee, and five of its nine members remain allies of Jiang. One man to watch is Jiang's former political secretary, Zeng Qinghong. Jiang is widely believed to want Zeng installed as the No. 2 on the Central Military Commission. Regardless of whether he gets that appointment or not, Zeng will act as a counterbalance to Hu in the leadership. "Zeng," says a senior Party member, "will continue where Jiang leaves off."