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.