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.