Hu Jintao leaves China richer, more powerful, more unequal, under communists' firm control

As Hu Jintao steps down as head of China's Communist Party after 10 years in power, he's hearing something unusual for a Chinese leader: sharp criticism.

In media commentaries, think-tank position papers and the less censored blogosphere, Hu's reign is being portrayed as a missed opportunity to tackle longstanding problems grown more deep-seated, from a yawning rich-poor gulf and worsening environmental degradation to stiffly authoritarian politics. One commentary has referred to the period as a "lost decade."

"We didn't realize Hu would turn out to be so conservative," said Wu Jiaxiang, a former party researcher-turned-businessman and avid blogger, summing up the disappointment of many in China's chattering classes. He dates his own disappointment with Hu to the closing of liberal-minded websites in 2005.

Some of the criticisms are designed to influence Xi Jinping, who will begin taking over from the technocratic, ultra-reserved 69-year-old Hu at a party congress that opens Thursday.

Mainstream state media, which answer to the party and dominate what most Chinese see, read and hear, have been praising the Hu era, calling it a "Glorious Decade."

It's not complete hype. Hu has presided over a run-up in domestic prosperity and global clout unseen by Chinese for centuries. When he took office, China's economy was a bit larger than Italy's; now it's No. 2 in the world. It boasts the largest numbers of Internet and mobile phone users worldwide and is the strongest magnet for foreign direct investment. Per capita income has quintupled to $5,400.

China has a seat at the top table in global decision-making and is recognized by U.S. defense planners as the only potential peer competitor. Under Hu, China held its first manned space flight and its first Olympics and rolled out other projects that have signified China's rise and brought the world's respect.

China's politics, however, remain a world apart, and Hu's critics say he and the rest of China's collective leadership have been too timid to change a system that is simmering with conflicts.

A central problem the critics point to is the growth-at-all-costs strategy that concentrates wealth among the few and disadvantages the many. Fixing it has been on the leadership's to-do list for more than a decade. In some cases, strategies Hu employed — easy bank credit, a bigger security apparatus and a reliance on huge state companies — have made matters worse, adding slowing growth and rising debt to problems like cronyism, corruption and injustice that are driving large-scale protests.

"Behind all these achievements are problems," wrote Deng Yuwen, an editor at a party newspaper, in a scathing analysis that was posted online in September but has since been expunged from Internet sites in China. Deng said Hu's failure to take meaningful steps toward political change has "resulted in the Communist Party itself facing a crisis in its legitimacy to rule."

Calls from retired party members, academics and other commentators are building for Hu's successor, Xi, to take on political reform, from making the system more transparent to moving toward democracy. The issue has stood untouched since the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement was crushed by military force. A research paper by the government-backed China Society for Economic Reform said in August that a new revolution might erupt without a fundamental shift in the current model.

Even after he steps down as party chief, Hu's influence will linger. His allies and protégés run provinces and key bureaucracies and are in line for promotions. Hu may also stay on as head of the party commission that oversees the politically influential military, just as his predecessor did for two years after Hu came to power.

Some hoped that Hu would bring political change when he took over. Hu spent the formative years of his career either in poor inland provinces or running the Communist Youth League. In the years before taking power, he oversaw party affairs. During his tenure, party think tanks were analyzing why the Soviet Union collapsed and tinkering with trial projects to bring more efficient and responsive government to citizens. "Link up with the world" was a popular official slogan when Hu took power, capturing China's aspirations to join the world community.

Hu's handling of his first crisis, the SARS pneumonia epidemic that officials first tried to cover up, seemed to augur tolerance for whistle-blowers, a freer media and greater accountability.

Instead, Hu soon tacked away from opening up the political system and relaxing the hold on society.

A signal event seemed to be the democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. China saw the hand of the U.S. government and foreign civil society groups at work, funneling money to local activists to subvert authoritarian governments. Police began targeting activists, even those calling for peaceful, evolutionary change. In a speech in 2004, Hu praised North Korea and Cuba for maintaining firm ideological controls.

The result is what some critics have called a turning away from the ambitious agenda that characterized much of the first two decades of China's reforms. "It all means giving up control, and they don't want to give up control," said Joseph Fewsmith, a China politics expert at Boston University.

Hu called for "harmonious society" — a double-edged catchphrase that the government would meet calls for greater fairness but that the people should not challenge the party.

Along with his Premier Wen Jiabao, Hu's government diverted resources to the lagging interior and away from the well-off coastal areas that had thrived in the first decades of economic reform. A social safety net of pensions, unemployment and medical insurance took shape and was built out to include farmers for the first time.

At the same time, Hu leaned on traditional pillars of control — the party, the police and propaganda.

The party revitalized networks where its reach had withered and moved into areas where it had never been — urban neighborhoods flooded with rural migrants and multinationals with their huge factories. Elections in villages that saw popular independent candidates win were reined in. Recruitment was trained on elite universities and party membership swelled to 83 million.

Spending on police, courts, prosecutors and other law enforcement has exceeded the defense budget since 2011. The money has bought surveillance equipment and a network of outsourced enforcers to augment police and keep tabs on democracy campaigners, evangelical Christians and anyone else deemed a threat to "maintaining stability."

State media too has been expanded aggressively, aided by a call for the biggest organizations to go online to sway boisterous social media chatter and to go overseas to compete with foreign media, whose reporting was seeping into a wired China. Online censorship was stepped up. Editors and companies who ran afoul of the party were threatened with being fired or losing business licenses.

Whether Hu ever intended to embark on reform, or if something caused him to pause, has never been made clear by the secretive leadership.

In a July speech that marked an attempt to define his legacy, he said keeping the party in command is essential for China to move forward.

"From start to finish, we must guarantee the party is the indomitable leading core of socialism with Chinese characteristics," Hu told leading officials from the provincial and central governments, many of whom will attend Thursday's congress.