Big conferences of China's Communist Party seem like a big snore until one realizes that the future of a quarter of humanity can be read in the tea leaves of minor word choices and subtle appointments (or rather, anointments) of leaders.
This week, a party congress anointed a bland bureaucrat, Hu Jinao, to be party leader and likely next president. He's a clever consensusmaker more than a leader. But more important, Mr. Hu was handed a mandate to fully embrace China's private business leaders with two goals in mind:
1. Give business more freedom and support to create a rising prosperity that keeps ordinary Chinese from asking why they can't direct their future through elected government;
2. Make sure this expanding "class" of entrepreneurs and investors (or, in Communist jargon, "advanced productive forces") doesn't become an unruly political force by inviting them to join the party.
Many of the new capitalists-cum-party members, in fact, were at the this week's Congress, even promoting their private businesses. But if they read the fine print of the party platform, they'd note that the government will keep a "dominant role" in the economy in order to display "the superiority of the socialist system."
Mr. Hu also was handed the legacy of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who kept China politically stable for 13 years by snuffing out dissent, ending party disputes over the extent of market freedoms, and managing rough spots with the US.
Stability, more than freedom, remains the party's mantra for the masses, and the excuse for not copying "any models of the political system of the West," as the party states.
It's a difficult balance to allow aspirations of wealth to flourish while denying political aspirations. Pressures for faster change are building in China - in rural poverty, party corruption, pollution, etc. - and the party may not be nimble enough to keep one step ahead of the masses. Co-opting its potential opponents, such as business, is one tea leaf indicating the party is losing its touch.