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A policeman blocks the street in front of the giant portrait of former Chinese chairman Mao Zedong at Beijing's Tiananmen Gate Nov. 7, 2012. Just days before the party's all-important congress opens, China's stability-obsessed rulers are taking no chances and have combed through a list all possible threats, avian or otherwise. Their list includes bus windows being screwed shut and handles for rear windows in taxis – to stop subversive leaflets being scattered on the streets – plus balloons and remote control model planes. The goal is to ensure an image of harmony as President Hu Jintao prepares to transfer power as party leader to anointed successor Vice President Xi Jinping at the congress, which starts on Thursday. (PETAR KUJUNDZIC/REUTERS)
A policeman blocks the street in front of the giant portrait of former Chinese chairman Mao Zedong at Beijing's Tiananmen Gate Nov. 7, 2012. Just days before the party's all-important congress opens, China's stability-obsessed rulers are taking no chances and have combed through a list all possible threats, avian or otherwise. Their list includes bus windows being screwed shut and handles for rear windows in taxis – to stop subversive leaflets being scattered on the streets – plus balloons and remote control model planes. The goal is to ensure an image of harmony as President Hu Jintao prepares to transfer power as party leader to anointed successor Vice President Xi Jinping at the congress, which starts on Thursday. (PETAR KUJUNDZIC/REUTERS)

China ends a decade of growth, inequality and repression. Next: more of of the same? Add to ...

“Who is Hu?” The question asked 10 years ago when Hu Jintao first became China’s paramount leader is still being asked today, as the stoic technocrat prepares to step aside in favour of a new generation of Communist Party rulers.

Tiananmen Square was closed to the public Wednesday and central Beijing was crowded with hundreds of thousands of extra security personnel ahead of the key Communist Party congress that will see the 69-year-old Mr. Hu cede the post of general secretary to Xi Jinping, who will also take over as president early next year.

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Should the outgoing Mr. Hu be feted for leading China through a decade of startling economic growth that also saw it emerge as a diplomatic and military heavyweight? Or will he be remembered as China’s Leonid Brezhnev – a man who put too much emphasis on stability and control, causing his government to become disconnected from the people?

State media, unsurprisingly, have decided on the former, this week hailing Mr. Hu’s time in power as a “Glorious Decade.” But there is also growing criticism that his failure to introduce political reforms leaves the People’s Republic weaker than he found it.

“These 10 years were without achievements, without efficient behaviour. The legal system went backwards; the income gap between rich and poor got wider,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian whose father was Minister of Food under Mao Zedong.

Mr. Zhang said Mr. Hu – who draws his support from the party grassroots and is believed to favour cautious reforms – was hamstrung by having to compromise with the more conservative “princeling” faction, the sons and daughters of revolutionary leaders who hold wide influence inside the Communist Party.

The divide persists as the seven-day Communist Party congress is set to open. The two sides are said to still be deadlocked over the composition of the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, the small, board of directors-like group that runs China.

While Mr. Xi, currently vice-president, is seen as a compromise candidate between the warring factions, the course he charts will depend heavily on who joins him on the all-powerful Standing Committee, which is expected to shrink to seven members from its current nine.

The party congress may feature a last-ditch effort from Mr. Hu to bolster his legacy by introducing greater internal party democracy. Some reports have suggested that both Mr. Hu and Mr. Xi favour having the next Standing Committee elected by the 2,270 Communist Party delegates from a slate of pre-cleared candidates, rather than the past practice of having them approve a list hammered out through negotiations between powerful party elders. However, it’s believed that the conservative faction, headed by former president Jiang Zemin, sees even that much reform as a step too far.

It’s expected Mr. Hu will also try to retain influence by staying on as chairman of the Central Military Commission – and thus head of the People’s Liberation Army – for another year or two.

Mr. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao definitely presided over a period of remarkable economic expansion. The official China Daily newspaper celebrated Mr. Hu’s time in power with a blizzard of impressive numbers showing how the lives of most Chinese have improved since 2002.

The economy grew an average of 10.7 per cent over the decade, and gross domestic product per capita almost quintupled to $5,432 (U.S.), the official Xinhua newswire reported. The number of refrigerators rose from 19.8 per hundred rural families to 61.5, and the number of mobile phones rose from 14.85 per hundred rural families to 179.7.

But those achievements were poisoned by the uneven distribution of that new wealth, creating a dangerous divide between China’s increasingly affluent cities and its still-impoverished countryside. Ask a Chinese what ails their country, and official corruption and income inequality will almost certainly be among their answers.

Critics say that while Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen were effective at managing day-to-day tasks, they lacked the political strength to introduce political and legal reforms, leaving it to their successors to face swelling unrest. China has seen a rising number of localized anti-government protests in recent months, most sparked by anger over corruption, disregard for the environment, and a legal system that few Chinese trust.

“I think their legacy will be mixed, at best,” said David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to Beijing who is now a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs in the University of Toronto. “We’re seeing this gradual process in Chinese politics where factions need to have their interests addressed. That makes it harder for leaders to do bold things. The problem is, China needs some bold and decisive reforms.”

While Mr. Wen, in particular, made repeated calls to open the political system, no serious effort was ever undertaken. Instead, control over political dissidents was tightened – highlighted by Liu Xiaobo winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while he was serving an 11-year prison term for helping draft a pro-democracy manifesto. Mr. Liu was famously represented at the award ceremony in Norway by an empty chair.

Suppression of ethnic minorities also got harsher, leading to bloody riots in Tibet and Xinjiang, and more recently a grisly string of self-immolations by Tibetan monks protesting Beijing’s rule.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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