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.