When Hu was in charge, so-called collective leadership was still in effect, and he had to compete with Jiang Zemin’s enormous sway over the country. Xi has since eclipsed Hu in terms of power. Hu presided over a period in which corruption increased, along with other potentially destabilizing trends, such as greater online freedom of speech and, to a lesser extent, the growth of civil society organisations and NGOs.
It wasn’t because Hu was particularly liberal, but rather because most party members were preoccupied with making money rather than maintaining the party position. On the final day of China’s 20th Party Congress, a rare and horrifying live drama played out that shocked the world. Former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader and Vice President Hu Jintao was formally led out of the Party Congress by his aides just before the session’s final votes, looking bewildered and furious.
Since resigning as CCP head in 2012—a move that was widely celebrated by party media and stood in stark contrast to Xi’s own rise to power—Hu has stayed mainly out of the spotlight. Xi has imprisoned several of his former associates, most notably his chief advisor Ling Jihua in 2015. There was a political axis connected to Hu that consisted of other ex-Communist Youth League officials.
Regardless of what transpired with Hu, Xi’s dominance will become more apparent on Sunday. Li Keqiang, the current premier and Hu’s protege, as well as other relative economic reformers like Wang Yang and Liu He are absent from the initial list of Central Committee names—the roughly 200 individuals who will ostensibly decide the Standing Committee, the core of the leadership, in meetings on Saturday and announce it on Sunday. This implies that close Xi friends will likely make up the majority of the Standing Committee.
Observers of China started making jokes about the “golden age of liberalism under Hu Jintao” around 2013. Even as civil society advanced slowly and shakily at the time, it seemed ludicrous that such a politically conservative era could be thought of in that way. It lost a great deal of its humor during the ensuing ten years. Hu’s era today appears absurdly free and open in comparison—and has been handed a horrible ending.