Argument

Hu Jintao's Legacy

Will China's outgoing leader be the man who introduced the world to a new superpower, or the man who destroyed it? It's too early to tell.

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.

But beginning in 2007, after the dramatic collapse of Western export markets, Chinese leaders decided to put everything back into maintaining economic growth, no matter how unevenly wealth was spread across society. Hu's original plans to lift taxes on farmers and focus on social welfare were quickly shelved as the party bet that, by keeping the economy humming above all else, it could stay a step ahead of the lower classes' growing anxieties.

Perhaps Hu had no choice but to make this gamble. Perhaps the only way to fend off the public's rising expectations toward government and paper over growing imbalances between wealthy coastal regions and poorer western ones was to keep his foot on the gas. Whatever the case, the country Hu presides over remains as unequal, if not more, than it was the day he ascended to the top in 2002. China may boast more than 96 dollar billionaires now, but 150 million Chinese still live in poverty. The country may have become the second richest in the world on aggregate, but per capita income hovers near 90th, similar to per capita income in Cuba and Namibia. Shanghainese enjoy a per capita income of more than $12,000 a year. Residents of Guizhou, China's poorest province, earn a mere $2,500 a year. Hu, of course, is likely quite aware of all this. The party is nothing if not mindful of how social instability pulled down the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the Republican government in 1949.

If Hu is successful in transferring power to Xi and his colleagues over the next six months, then the first plank of his legacy will be complete: He will have cemented the institutionalization of party processes and rules, improving China's political stability. If everything works smoothly over the next few weeks and months, at the National People's Congress in March, Hu will follow the constitution and retire as president, having served the maximum of two five-year terms. But the bar for success is high: If China's new leaders are seen as weak and illegitimate, then their ability to push through continuing economic and political reforms will be limited.

After the succession itself, things get trickier. Chinese leaders no longer pretend the current system is optimal. Even Hu talks of the need for reform beyond just fixing the economy. This is, of course, reform with Chinese characteristics -- the question is how the party can modernize and run itself more efficiently so that it can maintain a monopoly on power. But if Hu's successors manage in the next decade to strengthen the rule of law and empower civil society while introducing greater accountability and transparency for the party -- all while managing inequality and other structural challenges -- then Hu's gamble will have proven to be the right one.

If, on the other hand, the leadership splits, social conflict increases, and the party falls behind, Hu's focus on breakneck economic growth at the expense of reform will seem shortsighted. The Chinese Communist Party could be consumed by its own internal battles, while society grows ever more imbalanced and unstable -- maybe even exploding in anger so powerful that it brings down the system itself. And many in China will find themselves wishing that Hu had made a different bet.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Inside China's Smoke-Filled Room

Sorry, folks: The votes are in, and the ballots have already been counted.

HONG KONG — With its control of 1.3 billion people -- and an economy expected to surpass that of the United States in the next 20 years -- the Chinese Communist Party is the most powerful political machine in the world. Given that it holds a national congress only once every five years to confirm a new slate of leaders, Beijing has pulled out all the stops to prevent any mishaps.

A month before the weeklong 18th party congress starts Thursday, Nov. 8, Beijing-based dissidents such as Nobel Peace Prize nominee Hu Jia were forced to take "vacations" thousands of miles from the capital. Meanwhile, 1.4 million "volunteers" have been mobilized in Beijing to perform the function of vigilantes-cum-informants, reporting to the authorities potentially threatening characters -- for example, suspicious-looking Uighurs from western China who could be separatist-inclined terrorists. Authorities have forbidden supermarkets from selling cleavers, told Beijing residents not to fly carrier pigeons or play with remote-controlled toy airplanes, and instituted a state of emergency equivalent to martial law on the district that houses the West Beijing, the mammoth military-run hotel where many of the delegates stay.

With the unprecedented security and the fact that a generational change of leadership takes place only once a decade and that political and institutional reforms have been frozen for the last two decades, one would assume that the 2,270 congress deputies would be doing something extraordinarily spectacular. After all, these delegates represent China's 82 million party members, and they include not only mid- to senior-ranked cadres but also the cream of the intelligentsia and business world. This congress, however, seems destined to be one of the most anti-climactic party conclaves in recent memory. The delegates are supposed to read party documents and attend meetings within the confines of the well-guarded hotel; they are not supposed to meet family and friends or even talk on the phone for long periods of time so that they don't leak state secrets, according to conversations I've had with past delegates.

According to the latest edition of the Chinese Communist Party's constitution, updated in 2007, the congress is the party's highest leadership organ, charged with discussing and making decisions on important matters of the party and state. Moreover, it selects the party's two foremost executive bodies: the Central Committee, which decides on major policies when the congress is not in session, and the 127-member Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the country's top anti-corruption agency. The congress also ratifies changes in the party's constitution that the previous Central Committee may have recommended.

After the congress closes on Nov. 14, the 200 or so full members of the newly established Central Committee -- which also includes 150-odd alternate, or second-tier and nonvoting, members -- will select from among themselves 25 members of the ruling Politburo, as well as a more elite group for China's supreme ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee.

That's what the law says, anyway.

In reality, current and former Central Committee members choose their successors and the members of the CCDI. So when the deputies meet this Thursday, much of their work will have already been done for them. They will likely be handed an all-but-final list of candidates for the 18th Central Committee, with a "margin of elimination" of 15 percent. In other words, all the delegates need do is throw out 15 percent of the least popular candidates.

President Hu Jintao has already twice been outfoxed by his old adversary, ex-president Jiang Zemin. Before Jiang retired as the party's general secretary at the 16th congress in 2002, he was able to install several allies on the new Politburo and the Standing Committee. This year, the situation is particularly unusual -- and even by Chinese standards, unruly. Contrary to the party's constitution, the outgoing Standing Committee members, in consultation with long-retired octogenarian stalwarts such as Jiang and ex-premiers Li Peng and Zhu Rongji, have already picked their replacements, according to two senior cadres working in departments directly under the Central Committee.

In early November, Hong Kong newspapers and overseas Chinese websites published their predictions on the lineup of the new Standing Committee. The list is the same as what my Beijing sources say (and the overseas Chinese websites correctly predicted the identities of the Standing Committee members in 2007): Vice President Xi Jinping, 59; Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, 57; vice premier and Chongqing party secretary Zhang Dejiang, 66; Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng, 67; Propaganda Department Director Liu Yunshan, 65; Vice Premier Wang Qishan, 64; and Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli, 66.

According to Beijing-based sources, the titles and functions of the seven top leaders have already been confirmed. Xi, "first among equals" in the Standing Committee, will become general secretary (and in March, state president). Li will become premier. Zhang, who will be ranked third, will chair the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp legislature. Yu will be named chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top advisory council. Liu will be named head of the Central Committee Secretariat and, later, possibly also state vice president. Zhang Gaoli will become executive vice premier (who helps run the economy) and CCDI secretary will go to Wang.

That long-retired Standing Committee members are making a phenomenal comeback this year has spawned a kind of geriatric politics with Chinese characteristics. Like former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before them, octogenarians such as Jiang -- who officially retired eight years ago -- have refused to fade into the sunset. The 86-year-old Jiang suffered a series of heart ailments last year; premature announcements of his death appeared in several Hong Kong and Japanese media in mid-2011. In the past several months, however, Jiang has not only experienced an amazing recovery but also made several high-profile appearances in the mass media. He showed up at a concert at Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts in late September. In October, he met with representatives of Shanghai Ocean University. And an October article in People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, extolled Jiang's extraordinary memory to testify to his intellectual capabilities: Jiang can reportedly still recite the lyrics of an old pop song, "Moonlight and Shadows."

The sudden preponderance of octogenarians such as Jiang has meant that two relatively liberal cadres favored by Hu have likely failed to make the Standing Committee: Wang Yang, the charismatic party secretary of Guangdong, 57; and Li Yuanchao, the reform-minded director of the Communist Party's powerful Organization Department, 62.

A few of the incoming Standing Committee members, moreover, are ultraconservatives. Veteran propaganda chief Liu Yunshan tightened up media and Internet censorship in the past decade; Zhang Dejiang, a graduate of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, was the only senior cadre to have opposed the reform Jiang introduced in 2001 to allow private businessmen to join the party.

The consolation for Hu is that like Jiang he may remain chairman of the Central Military Commission -- China's equivalent of commander in chief of the armed forces -- for at least two more years beyond his retirement from his other party posts at the congress. Hu's residual clout in the People's Liberation Army is reflected in a series of just-announced military appointments. The new chief of the general staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui, and the director of the General Political Department, Gen. Zhang Yang, are considered to be Hu's protégés.

If Hu keeps the top military spot, Xi might not assume real power until 2014 or 2015. This combination of factors, along with Xi's apparently risk-averse personality, means that Xi's leadership priority will likely be maintaining the Communist Party's monopoly on power, silencing dissent, and sustaining economic growth and employment instead of hacking out new paths for political and economic reforms.

It is possible that many of the 2,270 delegates might not be too happy about the continuation of rule of man at the expense of rule of law. Because all important deliberations of the congress will be behind closed doors, however, any show of dissent among the deputies will not see the light of day.

After all, the unprecedentedly tight web of security that China's formidable state-security apparatus has spun around the 18th party congress is as much to ensure that trouble -- what the party calls "disharmonious voices" -- does not break out within the West Beijing Hotel as without.

Andrew Wong/Getty Images