Cover Story: The Next Leaders of the Unfree World

This week's TIME cover story, written by Hannah Beech, examines the upcoming once-in-a-decade leadership transition set to take place in China

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On Nov. 8, two days after Americans vote for their next President, a very different sort of changing of the guard is expected to take place in China—a carefully-scripted, once-in-a-decade leadership transition that will see President Hu Jintao step down to be replaced by his anointed successor, Xi Jinping. In this week’s cover story, TIME’s Beijing bureau chief Hannah Beech delves into the byzantine world inhabited by Beijing’s political elite and explores how Xi and his new cohorts will lead China in the decade ahead.

China’s giant stature on the world stage makes the opacity of its authoritarian state all the more conspicuous. As Beech writes, its rulers have always tried to project an image of seamless control and stability, or weiwen, which “is the government’s mantra these days, encompassing everything from security forces who beat up protesting grannies to secret prisons that house political dissidents to the armies of censors who scrub the media and Internet of wayward opinions.” The decades of rapid, historic economic growth have seen little parallel political liberalization. Writes Beech:

The Chinese Communist Party has overseen the greatest economic expansion in world history. It has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Without tying itself in ideological knots, the party embraced a state-sponsored capitalism that is fundamentally opposed to the socialist underpinnings of the People’s Republic. A new covenant was struck in what technically is still a communist state: the government will allow you to become rich, but you must not question the leaders’ political wisdom. It seemed an acceptable pact. After all, isn’t the freedom of a few—the dissidents, the independents, the democrats—worth sacrificing for the overall good of the most populous nation on the planet? Yet as we have learned from modern history, in the longer term, an authoritarian society tends toward less stability the more prosperity its people enjoy.

Now, particularly as China’s economy slows and double-digit growth can no longer propel the nation, its citizens are clamoring for yet another break from the past. Talking over the past couple of months with Chinese of varying backgrounds—-academics, -entrepreneurs, farmers and even the odd Communist Party diehard—I have been struck most by their shared conviction that China’s political system must fundamentally transform itself or face the kind of social upheaval that swept away the imperial dynasties and ancient warring kingdoms. While many Westerners are buying into the hype of a coming Chinese century, the Chinese I spoke to predicted an altogether more complicated future. In these uncertain times, no wonder the Chinese leadership is striving for weiwen, even if the whole endeavor reeks of desperation. “Rule of law, political transparency—that’s probably a long way away,” admits Fang Ning, director of the institute of political science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-funded think tank. “But we all know that change will eventually have to come to China.”

How Xi and co. manage these social and political pressures may be one of the biggest questions facing the world in the years ahead.