One word that can’t be used to describe the arrival next year of China’s new premier and president is “dramatic” — though the handover from one generation of leaders to the next begins at the Party conference in autumn 2012, it can take months, if not years, for the newly appointed to settle in. Even so, other possible leadership changes in 2012 could put China’s new leaders to the test sooner rather than later, according to Jacques deLisle, a University of Pennsylvania law and political science professor. That includes not only presidential elections in the U.S., but also in China’s small island neighbor, Taiwan.

In a recent interview with Knowledge at Wharton, DeLisle, who is also director of the Asia program at the nonprofit Foreign Policy Research Institute in Pennsylvania, offered a snapshot of what the legacy of Beijing’s fourth generation will be and what could make politics more challenging for its fifth generation.

The following are edited extracts of the conversation.

China Knowledge at Wharton: Is it possible to pinpoint what Hu Jintao’s legacy will be at this stage?

Jacques deLisle: Hu Jintao’s years in power — one talks about the top leader but it’s really the collective leadership headed by Hu — is still working within the Reform Era consensus, which dates back to the late 1970s. They’ve still been going down the path laid out then. One element is deeply engaging with the outside world in a way that China had never done before, certainly not since 1949.

The other way in which the Hu years have been a continuation of the preceding period is an emphasis on a market-oriented economy broadly defined, and on achieving high growth rates. Everyone tends to agree that their internal target is to stay at least at 7% to 8%, and ideally a bit higher than that. This economic agenda goes back to Deng Xiaoping, and has expanded, with some interruptions, for a generation. And there’s every reason to think Hu Jintao’s successor will continue that trend.

China Knowledge at Wharton: What’s leading you to predict continuity?

DeLisle: One thing is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The economic reforms have been responsible for transforming China from one of the world’s poorer countries to being a solid member of the lower middle-income group under World Bank measurements. Despite huge and growing inequality, China has had a remarkably effective poverty eradication program. It has lifted 150 million to 300 million people out of poverty in 30 years. No country has ever done that before.

Second, the strategy that emerged quite early in the Reform Era is that the Chinese Communist Party would remain in power and ensure legitimacy by delivering the goods, by providing a higher standard of living and prospects for a better future for the vast majority of Chinese. It’s part of the bargain — “We’ll deliver economically, we won’t be too repressive politically and you’ll allow us to stay in power.” There’s continuity on this agenda, too.

Where are Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao different? They have tweaked things in a couple of important ways. Although their emphasis on growth is still fundamental, they have been more concerned about distribution and equity than were their immediate predecessors — the government under President and Party Secretary General Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. There have been more policies focused on those who have been left behind in the first 20 to 25 years of reform. The Hu-Wen regime is sometimes called populist. That’s not a precise term but it does capture some of the flavor.

China Knowledge at Wharton: Given that context domestically, what’s your take on what some say is Hu Jintao’s other big legacy — for China to be a more assertive power regionally and internationally?

DeLisle: The dictum that Deng Xiaoping, and his successor Jiang Zemin, followed was, in effect, “Hide your light under a bushel” — become a strong country, but don’t be too noisy about it because people will push back against you and be suspicious of your aims. That policy faded halfway through the Hu years, partly because China is doing well and wants the recognition that comes with doing well, and partly because they put a lot of resources into the military. This all coalesces into China being much more assertive about its interests and preferences in the international system.

Since 2008, China has been throwing sharper elbows. A lot of the good will and soft power advances of earlier years have dissipated quickly. You see it in disputes over the South China Sea, frictions with various neighbors, like Vietnam and Japan, certainly, and the problem of China backing North Korea.

Taiwan has been an exception. While the Hu years brought a shift toward equity in economic policy and a more assertive approach in foreign relations generally, the third piece of Hu’s core policies has been to make progress on the Taiwan question.

Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan never fully returned to Chinese rule, after Japan lost the island at the end of the Second World War. Hu Jintao’s hoped-for legacy is to make significant progress on the Taiwan issue, even though he won’t recover it. Deng Xiaoping secured the recovery of Hong Kong and Jiang Zemin presided over its handover, but couldn’t make much headway with Taiwan. So this is the big “sovereignty” issue that’s still unresolved.

In the early 2000s, Taiwan was becoming a real point of friction in U.S.-China relations again, and Hu Jintao stabilized and accepted the status quo in the hopes of moving gradually toward a solution. Despite the fact that Taiwan’s then-president, Chen Shui-bian, was pushing China very hard and saying provocative things, Hu’s thinking was, “We can live with the status quo and a separate Taiwan as long as Taiwan doesn’t push for its independence. And we will develop cross-Strait relations so in the long run, there can be a peaceful reunification on terms acceptable to the Mainland.”

It’s a policy that is likely to continue after he leaves office because, again, it’s a policy that’s worked pretty well, especially in the last several years.

China Knowledge at Wharton: You say, “Pretty well.” Where is it wobbling?

DeLisle: Right now, the brightest spot in China relations with areas that it does not directly govern is across the Straits. In 2008, when Chen Shui-bian was ending his term as Taiwan’s president, he pushed a referendum on whether Taiwan should enter the United Nations under its own name. It was profoundly provocative and China wasn’t happy about it, but we didn’t get the Chinese missile tests near Taiwan that we saw back in 1996 when China was unhappy with what it saw as a pro-independence campaign run by President Lee Teng-hui during the island’s first fully democratic presidential election.

One of Hu’s great successes in Taiwan policy is that he rode out the Chen Shui-bian years. Ma Ying-jeou, the current leader of Taiwan, has pursued cross-Strait relations ardently, starting with economic issues. It has gone smoothly. There are now direct flights, which is hugely important for commerce; there’s tourism going back and forth; educational exchanges; and a free trade-like agreement — the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. These are trends that had been moving forward, but stalled during the final years of his predecessor and didn’t make a lot of progress during Chen’s eight years as president.

China Knowledge at Wharton: So that’s where the economic issues stand. What about the political issues?

DeLisle: The strategy for cross-Strait relations during the later Hu and Ma years has been described as, “Economics first, politics later. Easy first, difficult later.” They’ve done a lot of the economics and the easy. The question is what happens as we turn toward the politics and the difficult? Ma has said, in effect, “Go slow on the political side. We’re not going to get to the really tough issues — things that get close to a sovereignty question or a formal structure for political accommodation — until pretty far down the line, and indeed, not until after I leave office.” His strategy is: No independence, no reunification, no military-type conflict. It’s an attempt to stretch out the process.

But on the Mainland side, as Hu leaves office and the clock ticks past these early economic accomplishments, it’s clear that the political issues are going to come onto the agenda and that Beijing will push them. As much as there is some criticism in Taiwan of the economic agenda that Ma has pursued, the basic idea of warming cross-Strait relations and deepening economic ties has a lot of support. When you start talking about what the political accommodation might look like, you get a lot less unity in Taiwan, and a lot more wariness of what it all means.

China Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve mentioned, there is a third party in the Taiwan question — the U.S. Is the U.S. helping or hindering finding the answer?

DeLisle: The U.S. has been quite pleased with what’s been going on lately. That is, the U.S. is happy to not be caught in the middle of cross-Strait crises. The official U.S. position has long been that it has no stake in what the content of cross-Strait relations should look like going forward. Reunification, independence, whatever — we want a peaceful process. We don’t support Taiwan independence because we see that as highly disruptive and threatening to peace under current and foreseeable circumstances.

In terms of the upcoming Taiwan presidential contest, the U.S. will not express support for one candidate over another in an election in a fellow democracy…. But for people who look at this kind of policy in the U.S., there is a sense that the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou is a safer bet. China is less likely to react harshly, and the predominant U.S. view is that cross-Strait relations and U.S.-Taiwan relations are working pretty well, so why mess with it? Tsai Ing-wen, Ma’s rival from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has certainly said things, as is typical of candidates from her party, which are a closer to the pro-independence end of the spectrum. And China is deeply suspicious of Tsai and the DPP.

So, Taiwan has not been a major source of friction in U.S.-China relations recently. But every time there’s a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, it is, and we’re facing another arms sales decision pretty soon. If the U.S. doesn’t sell what Taiwan requests, Taiwan worries about what that says about our commitment; if we do sell them, China gets very upset.

When the U.S. president meets with the Dalai Lama [as Barack Obama did on July 16], China is angry because Tibet is considered an internal affair and the U.S. shouldn’t be mucking around in it. That said, there is some pragmatism in Chinese policy. As much as the Chinese position is that Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan are all part of China and subject to Chinese sovereignty, the U.S. recognizes that China governs Xinjiang and Tibet, and doesn’t govern Taiwan. China understands this, so it will stomach more American interest in Taiwan.

The question about the U.S. interest over the long term is what happens if Taiwan gets really close to the Mainland? Is that a good or bad thing for U.S. interests? On the one hand, it helps us go further down the road to removing what had been an obstacle in U.S.-China relations. On the other hand, if you believe — as many do — that U.S.-China relations are headed for some variation of the kind of conflict that happens when a relatively declining dominant power faces a rising new power, it would not be back to the Cold War but maybe to a bipolar structure where the U.S. needs all the friends it can get in the region, and Taiwan is a pretty reliable friend. That debate over the long term is what strategic thinkers have to worry about.

China Knowledge at Wharton: Over the long term, then, how do you think the U.S. views China’s intentions in the region?

DeLisle: There are signs today that the U.S. is looking at China’s behavior to see what its agenda will be going forward. That includes things like China becoming more confrontational with other states that have overlapping claims in the South China Sea; friction with Japan over fishing boats and claims to the ocean between Japan and China; the crackdown on Muslim groups in Xinjiang, or China taking a hard line with the Dalai Lama, or a possible deterioration in relations with Taiwan. The last of these could happen if we have a closely fought election or the current opposition party wins or Ma wins but does so by talking a tougher line. Short of truly aggressive action with a deployment of military, I think no one of these is an overall indicator of Chinese intentions. But Taiwan is a bit of a canary in a coal mine.

China Knowledge at Wharton: Calling Taiwan a canary in a coal mine might have been understandable in the past, but is that fair to say today?

DeLisle: I think it still is. Because the U.S. has a stake in Taiwan that is longstanding and includes opposition to any coerced change in the status quo, Taiwan gets a lot of attention. If China pushes really hard, it gives strong reasons to worry about its intent because it would be sacrificing an area that’s going well for China and affect an area that the U.S. watches with special care because of its security relationship with Taiwan. Actions from China — because of the huge power imbalance across the Strait — can change the status quo to a greater extent than in other relations along China’s periphery.

China Knowledge at Wharton: Has China’s next generation of leaders shown their cards yet in any of this?

DeLisle: The fifth generation will start taking over in the fall of next year at the Party Congress. Li Keqiang is going to be Wen Jiabao’s successor as premier, and Xi Jinping will succeed Hu Jintao as president and general secretary.

The Chinese political system now is not one where successors show their cards all that much. It’s not as if there are elections and a premium for distinguishing yourself from other aspiring leaders. It’s very much a pyramidal system and people rise to the top by staying within the consensus that frames the leadership’s policy. There are, of course, internal disputes over policy, but they tend not to be terribly publicly visible.

So there are few cards shown. You don’t secure your succession by challenging your predecessor openly while he’s still sitting on the throne…. What we’ve heard Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang say is not very far off from what orthodox policy has been under the fourth generation.

Some areas to look for indicators of change are career paths and personal history. A fairly standard, and generally accurate assessment, of fifth-generation politics is to talk about the “princelings” and the Communist Youth League group. The princelings are basically the sons — I say sons, because there are few daughters at top levels– of the first-generation revolutionary leaders. These people have grown up as China’s elite. They have largely served in China’s booming coastal areas — Shanghai, Beijing and so on. They’re thought of as people of the Jiang Zemin model — inequality is okay, growth is what it’s all about and so is deep engagement with the outside world. The Youth League faction that Hu Jintao — and to a certain degree Wen Jiabao — are more associated with are more concerned about inequality, the less-developed hinterland, and social stability and justice issues.

The sense is that the princelings will be dominant in this next 10-year period and will be less concerned about equality than their immediate predecessors. Some observers see a trend toward an alternation of office, between those who lean more “princeling” and those who lean more “youth league.” These are variations within a fairly fundamental consensus.

There is some concern that the fifth-generation princelings are different from the Jiang Zemin types. They may have similar economic policies but many people worry that they may be more corrupt, looking out more for themselves rather than the long-term interests of the system and be less willing to accommodate different views over the long haul. But there’s nothing from the top, top leadership that we know that suggests they would want to go down any path that they see as risking party rule.

China Knowledge at Wharton: So it will be more of the same generally in 2012?

DeLisle: The Mainland is the one place that we know where there will be a change of leaders by the end of 2012. We pretty much know who they are and have a good idea of their general orientation. And the fact that the occupants of offices formally change doesn’t mean the old guys leave power and the new guys have all the power. It takes more than a year for the successors just to accumulate all the formal posts, and it takes a couple of years or more for the old group to fade. Whether we will see continuity in foreign, or external, policy is really dependent to a great degree on what happens in presidential politics in two other places.

As for the election in Taiwan in January, a fair reading of the DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is that she would be a good deal more moderate than Chen Shui-bian, partly by personal preference, partly by temperament and partly by virtue of the political constraints she would face as the elected leader of Taiwan under current circumstances. But at a moment of formal transition on the Mainland, which — for all the continuity — is a period of high tension when nobody wins points by being soft, and given what are pretty entrenched Chinese suspicions rooted in the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian era of what the DPP in power means, there’s a real risk that China would react very badly to a DPP victory. That risk is particularly significant if it comes in the wake of Mainland-bashing or pro-independence electioneering in Taiwan, which is a real possibility. Taiwan has democratic elections and that means candidates face complicated calculations about whether to play to their more extreme base or to play to the middle. Ma may have to say relatively critical things about China to court median voters.

On the U.S. side, China likely will not be a big issue in the 2012 elections, and Taiwan is very unlikely to be a big issue, barring some immediate crisis. The issues here are generally more long term — that is: What underlies China’s more aggressive foreign policy stance in general? How do we respond to our sense that China’s on the rise and we’re in some trouble? You can imagine many scenarios after the 2012 elections in the U.S., regardless of who wins, in which China becomes an issue and perceived “China threats” spur policies that create friction in U.S.-China relations.