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."