The most noticeable feature of China's outgoing president, Hu Jintao, is his dullness. In his 10 years in power, he's on record making one joke: about hair dye. His dullness is even more startling because the county he heads is one of the most dynamic, fractious, and energetic places on Earth. Although Hu presents a blank face to the world and speaks only in the sterile, generic language of Chinese officialdom, the cities he oversees can change beyond recognition in weeks. Skyscrapers race up, sometimes as fast as a floor a day. Since Hu came to power in 2002, the country has built a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail network from scratch. As the world's eyes turned to China for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Hu simply declared, "The Beijing 2008 Games have opened." Those connected to the party secretary say, with absolute finality, that their leader doesn't do emotion.
Hu's dullness, however, stems from his immense self-control, and it is an integral part of a political personality one can only assume, in the highly strategic world of elite Chinese politics, was chosen very early on. Early biographies state that while a student at Qinghua in the 1960s, Hu was a keen dancer. When did he lose this slight hint of spontaneity? In his decade in power, Hu has maintained rigid control over the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the absolute summit of decision-making in China, which in turn maintained a strong grip on Chinese society. The disgrace of key leaders, like former Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu in 2006 and Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai in March, led to no noticeable fissures or dissent. Hu has adroitly handled unpleasant surprises, like the Tibetan riots in 2008, albeit with vast influxes of central funding and security spending. (Makers of close-circuit televisions in China have grown rich under Hu; rare for a country not fighting an armed rebellion or a civil war, spending on internal policing has outpaced national defense.)
But the world's most cautious, most seemingly egoless leader has made a massive gamble, the results of which will determine his legitimacy. Hu has bet that his half-decade-long strategy of pursuing economic growth instead of political or legal reform will be proven right. He hopes that China does not have to address its immense governance issues until it is wealthy enough to deal with them in a way that minimizes risk. Many party analysts believe that Soviet leaders' decision to reform politics before fixing the economy caused the fall of the Soviet Union: By ensuring strong growth, Hu ensured that China would not repeat the same mistake -- at least not on his watch. But as Hu and his Standing Committee colleagues have focused nearly single-mindedly on growth, the hard and soft costs of policing an increasingly unbalanced China have been rising sharply.
The Hu era -- which ends at the 18th party congress starting Nov. 8, as Hu begins the process of officially yielding power to Vice President Xi Jinping -- started out with a different vision for the country. From as early as the summer of 2004, apparatchiks began to speak of "putting people first" and creating a harmonious society -- in other words, addressing China's yawning inequalities and imbalances in ways that differed from the Jiang Zemin era. Jiang, a relative liberalizer, had successfully encouraged businesspeople to join the party in 2001. The question facing Hu when he came into office was what to do about the huge differences between the rich and the poor across the country.