There are all sorts of views of Hu Jintao, but the most common view externally is probably that he is a conservative, more interested in defending the power of the Communist Party than in overseeing reforms. Part of this comes from the fact that he hardly ever says anything in public, and people are therefore free to make assumptions based on high-profile developments such as media crackdowns and Internet filterings. If he’s responsible, he must be the tough guy.
My conclusion is the opposite. This is a complete guess, but my analysis is that he and Premier Wen recognize the need for changes and are pushing them through in a way which is highly sensitive to the special characteristics of Chinese politics. A crackdown provides superficial comfort for the critics and distracts attention from the main thrust of events, which is tectonic, gradual and unacknowledged change.
Over the past 25 years, reform and change first occured in the economy, and later in society. But politics has remained almost untouched. The challenge that Hu/Wen face is that it is increasingly obvious that the political status quo is not an option long term. What to do?
The economic reforms began at the grassroots level – the baochan daohu (household responsibility for agricultural production) policy was the beginning of the end for the centrally planned economy. The social changes began with the local street communities just stopping their constant interference in people’s lives. And politics?
My impression is that there are "democratization" experiments going on in various places – villages voting for the village chief, street committees electing their own head, local party branches in Sichuan electing the party secretary by secret ballot.
What is interesting is that there is hardly any mention of this in the media, by order of the propaganda department. But each hidden development at the grassroots level is actually being orchestrated by the Central Committee with a view to the future of politics in China.
If this guess is correct, then the plan here is so unbelievably ambitious that it drawfs just about any other political transition ever attempted in human history in terms of delicacy alone.
The proof that they might actually pull it off is the history of the early 1990s, when just about every communist regime in the world collapsed, while the Chinese Communist Party avoided the fate of its socialist brothers by throwing itself at capitalism. This is a party which has learned to be flexible. And Hu at the top is the guy who is orchestrating the process.