Over the past few months, nearly a dozen dissident writers have been arrested across the country, including journalist Shi Tao in Hunan province, scholar Zheng Yichun in Liaoning, essayist Zhang Lin in Anhui and painter Yan Zhengxue in Zhejiang. A researcher for the New York Times, Zhao Yan, was detained just before Hu's speech to the Central Committee, and a well-known essayist, Huang Jinqiu, was sentenced to 12 years in prison days after it. The authorities have also disbarred Shanghai lawyer Guo Guoting, who tried to represent several of the dissidents.
In another sign of the party's effort to restrict public debate, officials at Beijing University last month fired a professor, Jiao Guobiao, who posted a scathing critique of the propaganda department on the Internet. The dismissal -- the first time a faculty member has been purged at the school in years -- comes during an ongoing party campaign to strengthen what Hu calls "ideological education" in universities. Authorities recently announced rules requiring students to take more classes on communist theory and blocked outsiders from joining discussions on student-run Internet sites.
Chinese President Hu Jintao attends this weekend's Asia-Africa summit in Jakarta, at a time when he is increasingly seen as a hard-liner.
(Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)
Hu's government has also taken steps to close regulatory loopholes that have allowed independent, nongovernmental organizations to develop in China. Several groups that escaped scrutiny for years by registering as private businesses or with the help of sympathetic officials have come under pressure.
"Looking back at the policies of Jiang Zemin now, it wasn't so bad," said Mao Yushi, an economist who has had a book banned by the government and who runs a private research institute that has not been able to renew its permit. "We survived for 10 years under Jiang, but with Hu Jintao the authorities are trying to shut us down."
Liu Xiaobo, a leading dissident whom the authorities detained overnight in December along with two other writers, said Hu has ushered in the most repressive political environment in China since the late 1990s, when police arrested dozens in a crackdown on a fledgling opposition party and launched a violent campaign to crush the popular Falun Gong spiritual movement.
"Hu's thinking and ideology are clear now," Liu said. "He believes political reform would shake the one-party system, so he has found another way to deal with the public's dissatisfaction with the party. He's moving toward the extreme left, restricting speech and repressing intellectuals."
Hopes that Hu might pursue political reform peaked in 2003 when he and Premier Wen Jiabao took the lead in reversing the party's cover-up of the deadly SARS outbreak, pledging greater accountability and transparency in government. Later, many blamed Jiang's lingering influence for Hu's failure to act on proposals to strengthen the judiciary, expand media freedoms and hold limited elections for party posts.
But Hu delivered a speech to an internal party audience even before the end of the SARS epidemic in which he warned officials not to let the party's enemies use the crisis as an excuse to promote Western-style freedom of the press and constitutional reform, according to people who received copies of the speech.
Since then, while the party has tolerated limited experiments with elections in various localities, Hu has focused efforts instead on what he calls "strengthening the party's ability to govern." In practice, party members said, that has meant a sustained campaign against corruption in which thousands have been punished, including more than a dozen senior officials.
Instead of expanding the power of the courts or the press to serve as a check on officials, though, Hu has relied on more traditional methods aimed at curbing the abuse of power, strengthening the party's internal discipline and auditing agencies and issuing new rules governing the behavior of party members.
Hu has also presided over a slowdown in the pace of the economy's transition from socialism to capitalism, with no major breakthroughs in efforts to restructure the banking system or reform stock markets in the past year and a deceleration of the nation's efforts to privatize state-owned industries, economists and party researchers said.
Instead, Hu has focused economic policy on shifting resources to the country's poorer interior and promoting what he calls a "scientific development concept," which officials have described as an attempt to balance economic growth with concerns about the environment, the welfare of rural farmers and workers, and a widening income gap.
State media have trumpeted these policies, reinforcing Hu's image as a leader who is more concerned about those left behind by the country's reforms than his predecessor. But the shift has caused grumbling among business interests and party officials who advocate faster market reforms, said a party scholar.
"Hu spent all those years while waiting to take office thinking and planning what he was going to do, so he's not going to back off now," the scholar said. But he said Hu's populist approach has raised expectations among ordinary Chinese -- expectations the party bureaucracy is having trouble meeting.
The number of people who traveled to Beijing to plead for help in resolving grievances against local officials more than doubled last year, according to another party scholar, who was asked to study the situation. The sudden spike has alarmed the leadership because it occurred despite strong economic growth and as the number of protests across the country was also rising, he said.
Hu has responded by ordering new regulations drafted for handling such complaints, but the scholar said the rules will do little to help the petitioners and instead make it easier for local officials to punish them.
"The party's authority is gradually declining, and as a result, Hu is less confident and more insecure than the leaders before him," said a former provincial party chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "When a leader feels insecure, he tightens controls."