In a speech emphasising stability – and by default, continued one-party rule – he said that while reforms and restructuring of China’s government would continue, “we must keep to the correct political orientation”.
“The 17th congress brings together more than 2,000 delegates from across China to evaluate the country’s progress over the past five years”
Send us your views
Looking to the outside world, Hu offered to hold peace talks with Taiwan, a notable departure from his predecessors who have threatened to invade the island if it makes moves towards formally declaring independence.
But he also warned the island against striking out on its own course.
“China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity brook no division, and any matter in this regard must be decided by the entire Chinese people, including our Taiwan compatriots,” he said.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan as a province since their split in 1949 when the communists won the civil war and the defeated Nationalists fled to the island.
Overall though, Hu’s address was dominated by the issues and tests that the party faces at home.
Opening the communist party’s 17th congress, Hu said that China faced “unprecedented opportunities as well as unprecedented challenges”.
He said the country’s reform and development was at “a crucial stage” and China’s governing institutions needed to be more responsive to the country’s changing needs.
Hu, who has cultivated a man of the people image, has frequently warned that in order to keep its grip on power, the Communist party must not be seen as detached from the concerns of ordinary Chinese.
“A small number of party cadres are not honest and upright, he said, adding that “extravagance, waste, corruption and other undesirable behaviour are still serious problems”.
Of these, he said, corruption stood out as the biggest threat to China’s stability – an issue he said that could undermine the party’s grip on power and would not be tolerated.
“Resolutely punishing and effectively preventing corruption bears on the popular support for the party and on its very survival, and is therefore a major political task the party must attend to at all times,” he said.
Outlining his blueprint for China’s future, Hu said the theme of the party congress would be to “hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
What that translates to, essentially, is that China’s free market economy will continue while the Communist party keeps its hand firmly on the wheel.
But after almost three decades of reform, the impact of China’s economic boom continues to leave millions behind.
The gap between the rich and poor is growing, land is in short supply, and many in the countryside complain they are losing out to corrupt officials and greedy developers.
On top of that, the environment is paying an increasingly unbearable price for China’s economic growth.
Professor Wang Yu Kai, of the National School of Administration at Peking University, says all of these issues will need to be addressed at the party congress.
“House prices are going up too fast, the price of daily necessities is going up too quickly, inflation is going up too fast as well,” he told Al Jazeera.
“All these signals reflect China’s economy is now over heating.”
Throughout his speech, the Chinese leader also made liberal reference to the concept of “scientific development”.
The idea has become a trademark of Hu’s presidency, calling for a more equal redistribution of growth and more efficient use of China’s increasingly stretched resources.
1st congress. 1921 – 13 delegates including Mao Zedong meet in secret in Shanghai to formally approve aims and charter of the Communist Party of China
7th congress. 1945 – Meeting in communist forces’ stronghold of Yan’an names Mao as undisputed leader and enshrines his “thought” as party ideology
9th congress. 1969 – Meeting in Beijing at height of Cultural Revolution sees more than 80 per cent of elite central committee fired from posts
12th congress. 1982 – Deng Xiaoping advocates “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, shifting focus from central planning to free market capitalism
16th congress. 2002 – Hu Jintao succeeds Jiang Zemin as party leader, beginning first smooth leadership change since 1949 revolution. But Jiang leaves allies in key leadership posts
Held approximately every five years, a party congress is the biggest event on the Chinese political calendar and a show of unity for the largest political party in the world.
It is an event where delegates map out the future of the party and the country but, in public at least, it is not an occasion for debate.
In the run up to the congress, China’s leaders have taken no chances of dissent upsetting the show.
Tight security has been put in place around the Great Hall and neighbouring Tiananmen Square, dozens of activists are reported to have been arrested, while in the online world thousands of blogs and message boards have been shut down or blocked.
“The most important thing for China is to ensure the rule of the communist party,” said Wu Ren Bao, a congress delegate from Hua Xi, one of the richest villages in China.
Gong Bao Zha Xi, a delegate from Tibet, was also keen to be seen toeing the party line.
“We’re going to talk about the next five to 20 years,” he told Al Jazeera, “the development of the economy and how we build a better, more harmonious society.”
Behind closed doors
After Monday’s opening pomp and ceremony, delegates will spend the next few days away from the cameras, locked in backroom deal making the result of which could give an indication of China’s next generation of leaders expected to inherit power in five years time.
Much of the focus will likely be on how the party can remain relevant to China’s rapidly changing society.
When we will know the outcome is not clear – the end date for the congress has not been announced. But what happens over the coming days will have a decisive impact on China’s future direction.