Outgoing Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary Hu Jintao, who surprised observers last week by also handing over the reins of the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to Xi Jinping, has given his strong backing to the new leader as he grapples with the challenge of leading the world’s biggest army.

Mr. Hu and Mr. Xi met the PLA’s Central Military Commission (CMC — its top authority) on Saturday. The CPC’s new General Secretary praised Mr. Hu for his decision to step down, telling the meeting that Mr. Hu “voluntarily asked for not serving the posts of the General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee and Chairman of the CMC”. “The decision also embodies his exemplary conduct and nobility of character”, Mr. Xi was quoted as saying by the Xinhua.

In his first comments as head of the military, Mr. Xi called on the CMC to “promote and appoint cadres based on their political performance and guarantee that ‘guns’ are always controlled by reliable people with loyalty to the Party”.

He told the military “to always put the country’s sovereignty and security first”. Mr. Xi also called on senior PLA officials “to take the lead in obeying rules and regulations for self-discipline”, and said he would boost anti-corruption efforts.

Recent moves to tackle rampant corruption have met with obstacles. A crackdown waged by General Liu Yuan, the Political Commissar of the General Logistics Department, divided opinion in the military after he brought down a well-connected Lieutenant General, Gu Junshan, known to have amassed a fortune, including a multimillion dollar mansion right in the heart of Beijing.

The career prospects of the outspoken General Liu, who, like Mr. Xi, is a “princeling” — he is son of the former President Liu Shaoqi — have since taken a hit: he missed out on securing a post in the CMC. His ties to purged Politburo member Bo Xilai — another “princeling” — damaged his prospects. General Liu, did, however, retain his position in the party’s 376-member Central Committee, suggesting he still had some backers in the Party leadership.

Mr. Hu told the CMC that Mr. Xi’s succession “benefits the long-term development of China’s armed forces and the country’s long-term stability”. He praised Mr. Xi as a “qualified” Chairman of the CMC who could “shoulder great responsibilities, while uniting and leading the commission to fulfil the great historic missions”.

His decision to hand over control of the CMC surprised many observers, as Jiang Zemin, Mr. Hu’s predecessor, held on to his military position for two years. Mr. Jiang’s decision was, at the time, controversial: it exposed rifts in the party and also led to criticism from some quarters in the military, with two leaders seen as exerting their influence and complicating the chain of command.

According to one source, Mr. Jiang, even for a while after his belated retirement, continued to have CMC-related papers sent to him. By stepping down, Chinese analysts said, Mr. Hu was not only looking to institutionalise a transition process that was less complicated, but was also implicitly criticising how Mr. Jiang handled the transition.

Several State media outlets heaped praise on Mr. Hu for deciding to step down from both the Party and military, using Mr. Xi’s words and hailing his “noble character and unimpeachable integrity”. None of the reports did, however, mention Mr. Jiang.

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