When faced with ethnic unrest in Tibet in 2008 and the restive Xinjiang province in western China in 2009, Hu showed his steely side by cracking down harshly, using the police and the military, and censoring related content on the Internet.
Hu's regime likewise showed little tolerance towards political opposition, rounding up the most vocal dissidents and social activists, putting them in prison, under house arrest or making them disappear for weeks.
The most prominent victims of political repression include Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, Sakharov Prize awardee Hu Jia, artist Ai Wei Wei, and blind activist Chen Guangcheng.
Under Hu, China has kept a tight control of the media, especially the country's huge social media community. In March, for example, Internet regulators required the 300 million microbloggers on Weibo, China's Twitter-like service, to register their real names on posts to make then more accountable.
"Post-2007, Hu strengthened the coercive arm of the state," said David Zweig, political professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
But Hu has failed to narrow the country's widening wealth gap. Speaking at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in June, China's Premier said his country still has more than 100 million people living below the poverty line -- despite the size of its economy.
A study earlier this year by Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in China found that China's top 10% of households surveyed have 57% of the total income and 85% of total assets. Recent years have seen a growing rural-urban disparity with millions moving to cities to improve their income prospects.
Meanwhile, those who believed Hu would open up China's political system would be likewise disappointed. He has called Western-style democracy a "blind alley" and has resisted pressure to pursue even the most modest reform of the political system.
With little transparency, accountability and pluralism, the Communist Party under Hu has made little progress in curbing endemic corruption in the party and the government.
"Hu is seen to have been weak leader, missing opportunities, and putting excessive concern for order, his so-called 'hexie shehui' (harmonious society)," said Zweig. "Criticisms (of Hu's rule) have even come from the Central Party School, where Xi Jinping is president."
Xi, the state's current vice president, is expected to take over from Hu as General Secretary of the party at end of the 18th Party Congress.
Yet the months leading up to the congress have brought fractious back-room bargaining among the party elite, which is divided between informal "elitist" and "populist" factions.
Xi's ability to enforce unity at the top will determine how the new leadership will manage China's emergence as a global superpower and how it copes with its domestic problems.
"Demand from below for change is great," said Zweig. "But Xi Jinping may have to wait until he consolidates his power before he could push his own reform package."
That, he added, may take the 59 year old several months, or even one or two years.