Former president Jiang Zemin's rare public endorsement of Xi Jinping was a rallying call for the various factions within the Communist Party to unite at a critical juncture.
The unusual boost from a powerful party elder was also seen as a sign that the current president and party chief still lacked the confidence or authority to push imperative economic reforms and advance real political change, despite the unprecedented challenges facing the country.
The remarks by Jiang - praising Xi as a "strong and capable leader" who had his full confidence - came earlier this month during a meeting with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, but were not reported until Monday.
"The development is a worrying sign that the new leader still lacks the authority within the hierarchy, even more than half a year into office," said Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a veteran China watcher.
Chen Ziming, a political affairs commentator, said the appearance suggested Xi was still having trouble consolidating support for his agenda. "It revealed the division within the party over reform and policy direction," Chen said.
Since becoming the party's general secretary in November, Xi has launched a nationwide campaign to crack down on corruption, cut bureaucracy and enforce discipline on party officials - moves many hoped were a prelude to political reform.
Xi's administration was also expected to push a sweeping plan to fix the deep-seated structural problems dragging down the economy at an upcoming party plenum. Such campaigns would require broad party support.
"Jiang Zemin's public remark is apparently a rallying call for unity among factions within the party," said Zhang Lifan, a political affairs analyst formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Analysts say the development revealed that Xi was more cautious about reform than previously thought. That may suggest growing division within the party's ranks.
Jiang, who intervened to help put Xi on the path to power in 2007, continues to command respect as a party kingmaker.
"The development suggests that Xi still needs the political support from Jiang, the party elder, to push forward his political agenda," Liu said.
Chen said Jiang wanted to ensure that the new leader would stay on the course that several past generations of leaders, including Jiang himself, have set out for the country.
Zhang said the Kissinger meeting also sent a message about continuation of communist leadership. The former US diplomat was one of the few surviving foreign leaders who have met the last five Chinese leaders: Mao Zedong , Deng Xiaoping , Jiang, Hu Jintao and Xi.
However, Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, was not convinced Xi had sought Jiang's help. Rather, he believed Jiang was using this occasion to assert his own relevance.
"It appeared that Xi has been sidelining Jiang after his own succession to the top," Tsang said. "By reaffirming his support for Xi, which Xi cannot really publicly repudiate, Jiang is reminding everyone that he is the 'kingmaker' and remains influential."