Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Checkered end-of-term report card for Hu Jintao

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
November 9, 2012 -- Updated 0932 GMT (1732 HKT)
  • Hu Jintao will be stepping down as China's leader at the 18th Party Congress
  • Likely to be replaced by his current vice president, Xi Jinping
  • Hu presided over China as it became the world's second biggest economy
  • However critics point to growing rich-poor divide, corruption, authoritarian rule

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- When Hu Jintao steps down as leader of China's Communist Party this month, not everyone will view his record over the last 10 years favorably.

All told, it's a record of rapid social and economic changes punctuated by political turmoil, disaster and crackdowns.

Working in tandem with Premier Wen Jiabao, the 69-year-old Hu is credited for solidifying China's position as a rising global power.

But Hu also has his share of critics. "Although the reform and opening has given the party huge fortune, the distribution of wealth has been extremely uneven," said Zhang Ming, from the Department of Political Science at Renmin University in China.

Read: Hu Jintao opens 18th Party Congress

What China's leadership change means
China's Communist Party Congress meets
What in the world: Change in China
Mao's shadow over China

Many ordinary Chinese agree.

"China as a nation has become richer and stronger," said Li Yong, a white-collar worker in Beijing. "But many people are not feeling rich and strong. It seems prosperity has not trickled down much."

"Guofu, minqiong"-- the nation has become richer, the people poorer -- this is one popular assessment of Hu's time in office.

Read: New leaders face China's wealth divide

That rings ironic, observers say, given Hu's image as a populist politician.

An engineer with extensive experience in China's poor, underdeveloped interior provinces, Hu worked his way up the ranks of the party through the Communist Youth League (CYL), a training ground of party cadres that now boasts about 70 million members.

From the CYL, Hu was appointed as party chief in China's impoverished western provinces of Guizhou and Tibet.

In 1992, he was singled out by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping for promotion as the "core" of the younger generation, strategically given a place in the elite Politburo.

Read: Shadow of Mao lingers over China

Five years later, he became the youngest member of the Politburo's Standing Committee -- the country's elite decision-making body -- lining him up as the presumptive leader of the "fourth generation."

He took charge at the 16th Party Congress in 2002 when he succeeded President Jiang Zemin as Communist Party chief, before taking over as state president the following year.

Hu has tried to carve out his legacy by championing the country's "scientific development," a catchphrase for his policies, which sought more balanced, equitable and sustainable development, rather than breakneck economic growth as pursued by his predecessor, Jiang.

Hu's program called for increased social spending to help poor or unemployed farmers and urban workers to ensure social stability, or "weiwen."

Can China's boom continue?
On China: Xi Jinping
Retracing Chen's escape

In the last party congress five years ago, Hu managed to amend the party's constitution to include his scientific development mantra. It was widely viewed as a sign that he had consolidated his power five years after succeeding Jiang.

Under Hu's watch, China has become the world's second largest economy. The World Bank estimates its GDP to be $7.318 billion, as factors such as low labor costs and an undervalued currency combined to boost economic growth between 2003 and 2007.

He is also credited with improving the country's military and boosting national pride.

In 2008, China hosted the Olympic games, putting the spotlight on China's emergence as a world power.

In June this year, China completed its first manned space docking -- a significant milestone in its bid to construct a space station -- and sent its first female astronaut into orbit, only the third country ever to do so.

Read: China's space ambitions soar

In October, China sent its first aircraft carrier to sea, emblematic of China's growing ability to project its military power beyond its borders.

But Hu has always advocated China's "peaceful rise," which observers take to mean building a prosperous and "harmonious society."

Critics say he has failed to achieve this goal.

"In these 10 years, China is nothing close to harmonious," said Zhang. "Conflicts and contradictions have become worse. In fact it is reaching a crisis point."

When faced with ethnic unrest in Tibet in 2008 and the restive Xinjiang province in western China in 2009, Hu showed his steely side by cracking down harshly, using the police and the military, and censoring related content on the Internet.

Hu's regime likewise showed little tolerance towards political opposition, rounding up the most vocal dissidents and social activists, putting them in prison, under house arrest or making them disappear for weeks.

The most prominent victims of political repression include Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, Sakharov Prize awardee Hu Jia, artist Ai Wei Wei, and blind activist Chen Guangcheng.

Read: Blind activist Chen describes dramatic escape

In these ten years, China is nothing close to harmonious. Conflicts and contradictions have become worse ... It is reaching a crisis point.
Zhang Ming

Under Hu, China has kept a tight control of the media, especially the country's huge social media community. In March, for example, Internet regulators required the 300 million microbloggers on Weibo, China's Twitter-like service, to register their real names on posts to make then more accountable.

"Post-2007, Hu strengthened the coercive arm of the state," said David Zweig, political professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

But Hu has failed to narrow the country's widening wealth gap. Speaking at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in June, China's Premier said his country still has more than 100 million people living below the poverty line -- despite the size of its economy.

A study earlier this year by Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in China found that China's top 10% of households surveyed have 57% of the total income and 85% of total assets. Recent years have seen a growing rural-urban disparity with millions moving to cities to improve their income prospects.

Meanwhile, those who believed Hu would open up China's political system would be likewise disappointed. He has called Western-style democracy a "blind alley" and has resisted pressure to pursue even the most modest reform of the political system.

With little transparency, accountability and pluralism, the Communist Party under Hu has made little progress in curbing endemic corruption in the party and the government.

"Hu is seen to have been weak leader, missing opportunities, and putting excessive concern for order, his so-called 'hexie shehui' (harmonious society)," said Zweig. "Criticisms (of Hu's rule) have even come from the Central Party School, where Xi Jinping is president."

Xi, the state's current vice president, is expected to take over from Hu as General Secretary of the party at end of the 18th Party Congress.

Read: Xi Jinping, China's mystery man

Yet the months leading up to the congress have brought fractious back-room bargaining among the party elite, which is divided between informal "elitist" and "populist" factions.

Xi's ability to enforce unity at the top will determine how the new leadership will manage China's emergence as a global superpower and how it copes with its domestic problems.

"Demand from below for change is great," said Zweig. "But Xi Jinping may have to wait until he consolidates his power before he could push his own reform package."

That, he added, may take the 59 year old several months, or even one or two years.

Part of complete coverage on
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2359 GMT (0759 HKT)
The new U.S. deal with China on greenhouse gases faces enormous challenges in both countries. Jonathan Mann explains.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 2026 GMT (0426 HKT)
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0551 GMT (1351 HKT)
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 0500 GMT (1300 HKT)
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
China sends an unmanned spacecraft to the moon and back but is country following an outdated recipe for superpower status?
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Full marks for ingenuity: Students employ high-tech gadgets worthy of a spy movie to pass national exam.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0526 GMT (1326 HKT)
Confucius Institutes seek to promote Chinese language and culture but some have accused them of "cultural imperialism."
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.