Chairman Mao famously said: "Power comes from the barrel of a gun."
His philosophy has underpinned China's opaque and secretive political system and, for this reason, Jiang Zemin's decision to stand down as army chief three years ahead of schedule marks the real handover of authority.
It completes the first orderly transition of power since the communist revolution in 1949.
Jiang Zemin could have remained army chief until 2007
In a letter read out on state television, Jiang Zemin said he was standing down for the good of the party, the state and the armed forces.
He said the appointment of Hu Jintao to the post - a man who is already China's president and head of the Communist Party - demonstrated "the absolute leadership of the party over the armed forces".
His departure has been greeted with surprise, both from the public and from analysts.
The official press had given Mr Jiang prominent coverage over recent weeks, even reporting on obscure visits he made 15 years ago, sparking rumours of a power struggle between him and Mr Hu.
"There is a bit of speculation that Mr Jiang has been pushed aside, as there are certain subtle pressures suggesting that he should step down," Joseph Cheng from Hong Kong's City University told BBC News Online.
But Mr Cheng said there could also be other possible explanations for the former president's departure.
"He's basically secured what he would like as departing leader," Mr Cheng said.
"His Three Represents theory [defining the new power bases for the Communist Party] has entered into the party charter, his proteges have all been occupying very important positions in the leadership hierarchy, so he feels he has secured a very respectable place in the history of the party."
The real question now is how much difference a new army chief will make.
Mainland analysts tend to believe that policy direction has already been set by the collective leadership, so is unlikely to be influenced by personnel changes.
Lin Shaowen from China Radio International does not expect any major overhaul.
"It is no longer a system where one man can have the final say," he told the BBC.
"In the past, Mao Zedong could overturn decisions by himself. But now it is an era of collective leadership - really collective leadership - and no single man can overturn decisions made by others."
But there is a greater expectation of change across the Taiwan Strait.
Mr Hu is now head of China's massive military machine
"Policy will probably differ from Jiang Zemin's era, in that there will be a more flexible approach to Taiwan," said military analyst Andrew Yang.
"I think Hu Jintao is a much more pragmatic person, and there will be more interest in establishing direct linkages with Taipei and setting aside the one-China dispute. This sort of approach will be welcomed by Taipei," he said.
One idea that has been a casualty of disagreements between leaders has been the concept of "China's peaceful rise".
This idea was initially espoused by Mr Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao as part of efforts to reassure China's neighbours that it would not use its new-found economic power to become militarily aggressive. But it was subsequently jettisoned after meeting opposition from others, apparently including Mr Jiang, over the issue of Taiwan
David Zweig, from Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology, said Mr Jiang's retirement might enable the concept to come back into acceptance.
"The one thing that could be most significant would be if the concept of China's peaceful rise comes back into acceptance and wider play. China recognises its increasing power but accepts the responsibilities of that increasing power and influence and uses it in a positive way. And that's the message of 'China's peaceful rise'," he said.
One of the biggest remaining questions is whether Mr Jiang is truly retiring from politics, or whether he intends to become a political puppet master behind the scenes.
Five of the nine members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee are seen as Mr Jiang's allies.
Mr Zweig has few doubts that Mr Jiang will use this fact to his advantage.
Jiang Zemin's departure will consolidate Mr Hu's power
"Of course he'll exercise his influence through allies... and they will look to him to a certain extent, because they may feel threatened and hope that he can protect them," he said.
So the road ahead for the new leadership may still be paved with obstacles.
In a speech last week, Mr Hu made clear his aim of improving party governance by increasing its accountability.
But Mr Cheng believes that the new leaders may find themselves with a fight on their hands if they want to follow such an agenda.
"The major areas that the new leaders would like to leave their mark will probably be political reform and combating corruption," he said.
"These two issues are related to their determination to overcome vested interests resisting reform.
"I think the real test [of their power] is whether the new leaders will now be in a position to show their political determination to push for further reforms."