My trip to the hometown of China’s soon-to-be ex-leader.

China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

In October 2010, I visited Hu Jintao’s ancestral village in Anhui province in central China. The mild-mannered, enigmatic Hu, whose successor will be officially named over the next week, traces his ancestry back to Jixi, a county of roughly 200,000 people that encompasses Dragon River, a town of 1,400 people known for its ancient canals and well-preserved traditional architecture.

Dragon River, bounded by mountains on three sides and a river on the other for excellent fengshui, markets itself as a tourist destination. But Hu, who lacks the founding-father credentials of Mao Zedong, the charisma of Deng Xiaoping, or even the stature of Jiang Zemin, isn’t the main attraction. Like the traditional merchants of Anhui, Hu Jintao is "very mild," said Johnson Yeh, a manager with a local branch of China International Travel Service (CITS), who gives Hu-themed day tours to Jixi.

"That’s just the way it is," my tour guide in the town, who asked to remain anonymous, responded when I asked why there’s no mention of Hu. "It’s just more low-key." She explained away the near-empty shops and temples by claiming that "in summer the streets are filled with people." I asked Chen Yuecai, a 22-year old who worked at a teashop in the village, why they don’t mention Hu’s name on any of their promotional material. "Plenty of people come to Dragon River," she said. "Why do we need to use his name?"

All of the villagers I spoke with spoke in guarded, vague terms. An abbot of the local Buddhist temple who asked to remain nameless, and who grew increasingly agitated conversing with a foreign journalist, explained, "Hu Jintao must have accumulated a lot of karma in a past life to be emperor today." A middle-aged woman who worked as a part-time waitress in one of the city’s dozen or so restaurants said that from the village’s perspective, Hu’s greatest achievement is that "he’s made Dragon River into a tourist attraction," with better roads and more development. Claiming Hu’s greatest achievement is bringing tourism to a small village could merely be a provincial attitude or one of the best examples of damning with faint praise that I’ve ever heard.

Unlike the hometowns of Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic of China’s three previous paramount leaders, Hu’s lacks any trace of personality cult. The only mention of Hu I saw was in one of the shops near the canal that ran through the village, where a shopkeeper had displayed a large portrait of Hu smiling woodenly, with the caption "President of China, Chairman of the Military Commission Comrade Hu Jintao." When I asked about it, he offered to sell it to me for the bargain price of $15. "I’m the only one with this because you have to make them very carefully," he said. "If you make a mistake you’ll offend Hu Jintao." He declined to talk to me anymore or give his name unless I bought something, so I left the shop.

And on it went. Hu’s cousin, who lives in the nearby town, declined interview requests; an old man who knew Hu’s family waved off my question and then proceeded to ignore me.

I found myself wondering how much of Dragon River’s silence was fear, and how much was apathy. Over the last decade, China’s political elites have moved successfully away from a system of personality cults to one of collective leadership. But was that a top-down decision and a sign of China’s more advanced politics and Hu’s modesty, or do people just not like him?

This week, as the country gears up for the 18th Party Congress, where he will begin to officially yield power to chairman-in-waiting Xi Jinping, Hu will give his work report, summing up his achievements over the past decade. Hu has much to be proud of: He has successfully re-directed investment to China’s poorer Western regions, managed social discontent, and helmed a country that now has a say in major foreign-policy issues around the world. Yet Hu, who presided over an economy that grew more than five-fold since he took power in 2002, has arguably been the least successful Chinese leader since 1978.

"They’ve done the easy part: spending money," said a Chinese academic who asked to remain anonymous. "But anything that’s hard, they’ve stayed away from. They’ve left the hard part for future generations."

In a country where it’s difficult to mention Hu’s name on microblogs, much less write anything critical about him, there are no reliable public opinion polls about China’s outgoing leader. Nevertheless, some have expressed their discontent. In September, a senior editor of the Communist-Party controlled newspaper The Study Times published an article (since deleted) on the business website Caijing arguing that Hu and his colleague, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, "created more problems than achievements," over the decade of rule, citing  the growing wealth gap and a "crisis of legitimacy." In September, economist Zhang Weiying told Bloomberg TV that although growth has been high, the last decade in China "in terms of social problems is the worst decade; in terms of reform, it’s the lost decade."

Hu has had some successes. Of the dozen or so people I interviewed in Dragon River, most pointed to his 2006 elimination of agricultural taxes and other measures to help peasants as his greatest accomplishment. Three Taiwanese diplomats told me in September that they were pleased with Hu’s attitude toward Taiwan: Under Hu, China has turned down the military pressure and increased economic cooperation; his government signed an economic cooperation agreement with Taiwan — trade between the two reached $160 billion in 2011, a more than fourfold increase from 2002. He did oversee China’s arrival as a global power. And Hu has a reputation for keeping his family relatively clean; at least compared with his colleagues in China’s top decision making-body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and the grasping families of his predecessors, Jiang and Deng.

Over the last decade, China needed a leader. Instead, they got Hu: a man "more like a cadre," said the part-time waitress in Dragon River. Or, as Chen the tea-shop worker described him: "if he sat next to you, you wouldn’t feel like he was a leader. Just a regular old man, but with more power."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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