For a moment, it seemed China was reverting to Maoist economic management.
On the sidelines of the Communist Party congress this month, an official told Xi Jinping that her village distillery sells baijiu, a potent spirit, for 99 yuan, about $15, a bottle. Mr. Xi, China's most powerful leader since Mao, remarked that this seemed a bit high.
The chastened official thanked him and pledged to follow his guidance. But Xi gestured her to stop. "This is a market decision," he chuckled. "Don't cut the price to 30 yuan just because I said so." The audience, perhaps relieved that Xi had no intention of dictating the price of booze, broke into laughter.
This rare spot of levity at the dreary five-yearly congress was telling. The occasion cemented Xi's unrivaled position at China's apex. For companies, the question is what he will do with it. His vision can seem ominous. In a speech laying out his plans, he made it clear that the party is all-powerful.
On his watch the party has already reasserted control over state-owned enterprises and sought influence in private ones. It has called on entrepreneurs to be patriotic. And regulators have cowed swashbuckling businessmen, from Wang Jianlin, a property mogul formerly China's richest man, to Wu Xiaohui, an insurance magnate.
It might seem as if Xi is turning the screws on private enterprise. But "socialism with Chinese characteristics" has long had a contradiction at its heart. Across much of the economy, Communist officials preside over rumbustious capitalism. Xi's pledge of a "new era" probably means more of the same rather.
One concern is tightened control of the technology sector. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that internet regulators might take 1 percent stakes in social-media giants, including Youku, Alibaba's YouTube-like platform, and Weibo, China's answer to Twitter. But the government already has a good handle on its tech superstars. None can get far in China if it angers the party or turns down data requests from state security. And they already serve up party-pleasing products. Some are lighthearted, like Tencent's game for WeChat, its ubiquitous mobile app, letting users compete in "applauding" Xi's speech by tapping their phone screens. Others look more sinister, such as techniques to monitor users, which can help authorities track citizens.
The notion that Xi is stifling innovation is belied by a flourishing of enterprise. Only America has more, and more valuable, startups. Media focused on the party instruction for entrepreneurs to be patriotic, but the directive mostly spelled out how the government can support them.
Another concern is Xi's wish to strengthen the party's clout in the corporate world. Hundreds of listed state-owned enterprises (SOE) have amended their articles of association since he took office, vowing to consult party committees on big decisions. The regulator which oversees tech companies last year ordered them to improve their "party building" activities. The party wants members to be placed in more important jobs.
But this is not entirely new. After mass closures of SOEs in the 1990s, officials pressed private firms to set up party organizations. As far back as 1999 nearly a fifth of foreign-backed companies had one. There is scant evidence that party cells have tried to sway firms' big decisions.
Perhaps the biggest risk is that, even if Xi means well, the accumulation of so much power can itself have a chilling effect. A few days after his baijiu remark, the distiller announced that it would sell a new blend at 30 yuan a bottle.