As the 18th Party Congress concludes this week, the real questions begin about where China's new leaders will take the country.
Hundreds of miles from Beijing, in the caves that sheltered the founders of the People's Republic of China in the 1930s after they regrouped from their Long March, there are clues about the past and hints at how China has changed in recent times.
Earlier this fall, I visited the Yan'an caves where the revolutionaries that led the party to power steeped. Among throngs of nostalgic tourists, I met a chatty middle-aged woman paid to keep an eye on them. She sat on a bench outside the caves, watching passersby, her eyes darting between two cell phones. I thought she was waiting for someone. She was, in fact, monitoring me, along with everyone else.
"If a lamp breaks, I report it and people in charge of electricity find the exact spot on the map and deal with it immediately," said Liu Xiaoli, 48, who calls herself a "digital chengguan" - a member of the petty crime para-police forces, China's ever-present urban management officers who have a earned bad reputation in many places as thugs. "If a shop sells fake goods and is reported, it can be easily located. If a taxi driver charges too much and is reported, people will deal with it."
Liu was trained in electronically studying her neighbors this fall, when a monitoring program that began several years ago in Beijing made its way west to Yan'an, the cool mountain city in the north of Shaanxi province that became China's Red capital for more than a decade when the Communists established their base there in 1936. She reports bad deeds via cell phones, her colleagues using GPS to track down the culprits.
In the decade since President Hu Jintao and the current ruling body took power, the country's security apparatus has grown to mammoth proportions. The "Harmonious Society" has come with a steep increase in domestic patrols, high-tech monitoring and internal security forces. A great deal of that hardware came as security for the 2008 Olympics and today, it can seem no corner of Beijing or any other major city is untouched by surveillance cameras.
For several years, conventional wisdom has held that times for China's critics, including journalists, lawyers and NGOs, were getting tougher leading up to and hinging on this party power transition now underway. That much of the paranoia about criticism of China's ruling party was related to the CCP's extreme need to have the transitional moment run smoothly, without major disruption. In the long lead up, things did get worse for the many activists, writers, rights lawyers and others who were arrested and silenced these months. But what happens now?
The fate of the domestic security machine, which for three years now has had a larger budget than China's military, is a massive question. And it's a safe bet it won't go quietly away.
In September, the European Union Institute for Security Studies, a Paris-based think tank affiliated with the EU, wrote about the buildup, saying, "gaining or remaining in control of the apparatus is one of the major issues for the CCP's leaders."
With the power changeover firmly underway, and a new team of leaders set to meet the press on Thursday morning, the CPP can relax, right? Don't bet on it.
Joshua Rosenzweig, researcher at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said things might even get worse in the short term as new leaders try not to appear weak as they deal with ongoing problems and protests.
"I don't think that there will be an appreciable change in the priority the party gives to preserving social stability, and, therefore, there is little reason to anticipate a kindler, gentler approach to those who are seen as threats to that stability," he said. If anything, there is likely to be an effort to expand the scope of ‘social management' efforts to try to exert as much control as possible over potential trouble spots and troublemakers."
The digital chengguan Liu doesn't expect to give up her cells phones and stop watching people any time soon.
"Look -- this is me. I'm sitting here. So I'm monitored," she said with some delight, pointing to a blue dot on the map displayed on her screen. "People know my exact position."