What happened to Hu Jintao at the Chinese Congress?

What happened to Hu Jintao at the Chinese Congress?

It was the only interruption in one of China’s most fitting events: the country’s former top leader, Hu Jintao, was abruptly ushered out of the closing ceremony of the twice-a-decade Chinese Communist Party congress.

The congress, where China’s next leaders are named, is the most important political event for a ruling party fixated on control. Every detail, whether it’s the outcome of his election or how the servers pour the tea, is planned. Nothing unscripted happens. Nothing unscripted is allowed to happen.

Except this year, it is.

Approximately 2,000 delegates at the congress have just voted for the prestigious Central Committee of the party. Two men then led Mr Hu – who appeared reluctant to leave – out of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

The moment, captured by journalists who were allowed into the hall a few minutes earlier, sparked questions and wild speculation. Was Mr. Hu, 79, suffering from ill health, as Chinese state media would later report? Or was he cleaned up in a dramatic show by China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, for the world to see?

“This was a stunning episode — even during the Mao period, you didn’t see this dramatic disruption of congress,” said Victor Shih, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego.

The world may never know the answer, given the utter secrecy surrounding China’s high politics. But a deconstruction of the video provides additional detail and context about this much-researched moment.

In the minutes before Mr. Hu is taken away, he appears to be reaching for a document on the table, where top leaders and retired party elders preside.

New York Times; video CNA via Reuters

The man on his left, Li Zhanshu, now the outgoing No. 3 party official, quickly intervenes, covering him with a red folder. Later, he pulled out a document, speaking into Mr. Hu’s ear.

It is unclear what the document was, but it appears that all the officers had papers. A photograph of one of the pages, taken later, appears to show that it is a list of names, with the words “Central Committee”.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The Congress was about to announce a new Central Committee, which would make it clear that Mr. Xi pushed out moderates in favor of loyalists. The party’s top leaders and retired elders historically have a large influence on the election.

The delegates have not yet voted on amendments to the party constitution, approving the report of Mr. Xi’s report on progress over the past five years, or a report on internal party discipline. The amendments, revealed later, reaffirmed Mr. Xi’s importance as the “core” of the party.

Previous party meetings were stages of political maneuvering and humiliation of former leaders. In 1959, the party formally adopted a resolution condemning Peng Dehuai, a senior military official, after he criticized Mao Zedong’s economic policies. During the Cultural Revolution, many leaders, including Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, were purged or publicly shamed. But those moments predated the Internet age and were clearly intentional.

Xi Zhongxun (above), Xi Jinping’s father, and Peng Dehuai (below) were two senior Communist Party officials publicly disgraced during the Mao era.

It is far from obvious that Mr. Hu’s departure was planned, and many analysts caution against conjecture. The apparent chaos in the ensuing moments led many to read the scene as unscripted.

Mr. Xi glances to one side of the corridor. The assistant then approaches Mr. Xi, who addresses him and taps a piece of paper. An assistant leans down to say something to Mr. Hu — who had been watching the previous exchange out of the corner of his eye, seemingly listening.

As Mr. Xi looks on, an aide grabs Mr. Hu’s right hand, as if trying to pull him out of his seat. Mr. Hu pulls his hand back. The man tries to lift the former leader from behind, under both arms, but again fails.

Mr. Hu then reaches for the paper in front of Mr. Xi, which the top leader is holding down.

When the aide finally succeeds in coaxing Mr. Hu from his chair, Mr. Li, the No. 3 official, half rises from his seat and appears to move to join the situation. Another official – Wang Huning, the party is then-No. 5 leaders — pulling Mr. It pours back.

New York Times; video CNA via Reuters

Mr. Li and Mr. The Wangs represent a changing of the guard at the pinnacle of power in China – the Politburo Standing Committee, which was unveiled the next day.

Mr. Xi has appointed allies who are too old or inexperienced to succeed him.

Some members who were considered less close to Mr. Xi took early retirement.

Mr. Xi has appointed allies who are too old or inexperienced to succeed him.

Some members who were considered less close to Mr. Xi took early retirement.

Mr. Xi has appointed allies who are too old or inexperienced to succeed him.

Some members who were considered less close to Mr. Xi took early retirement.

New York Times; photos by Tingshu Wang/Reuters, Jason Lee/Reuters

Mr. Li has reached retirement age and is leaving. Mr. Wang is the party’s chief theorist and has served as an ideological adviser to both current and former leaders; he was promoted to 4th place at this congress and is considered close to Mr. Xi.

Given that the Standing Committee of the Politburo is now filled with his allies, Mr. Xi will face little resistance to his agenda, which includes strengthening national security and reshaping the global order to better suit Beijing’s interests. None of the new leaders has the experience or is young enough to be considered a potential successor to Mr. Xi.

As the two assistants begin to lead Mr. Hu away from his seat, the senior leader stops to say something to Mr. Xi. Mr. Xi nods briefly, not turning fully to look at him.

New York Times; Reuters video

Mr. Hu then patted Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, on the shoulder. Mr. Li also nods, but also does not turn completely.

The prime minister has long been seen as an ally and protégé of Mr. Hu. He rose through the party ranks in part through his leadership roles in the Communist Youth League, the party organization that Mr. Hu once headed.

At least two people sitting at the head table have longstanding ties to Mr. Hu. Wang Yang and Hu Chunhua — outgoing Party 4 member and Chinese Vice Premier — were also affiliated with the Communist Youth League.

New York Times; Reuters video

A new line-up of top officials unveiled the next day excluded three of Mr Hu’s alleged protégés, breaking a tradition of balancing different party factions in the leadership.

As Mr. Hu is escorted out of the hall, he walks past 19 other senior party officials seated at the same long table.

Almost none of them give any indication that anything out of the ordinary is going on. Several of them are involved in the conversation. Most are looking straight ahead.




New York Times; photo by Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Wu Guoguang, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada who was an adviser to the former Chinese premier, said he did not want to speculate on what happened. But he said he was stunned by the cold reaction from officials.

“This was Hu Jintao, the former top leader of your party and the man who gave many of you political opportunities. And how do you treat him now?” Professor Wu said ua podcast interview with Times columnist Li Yuan. “This incident showed the tragic reality of Chinese politics and the fundamental lack of human decency in the Communist Party.”

After Mr Hu left, the closing ceremony continued, his empty seat in the front row the only reminder of the break. To most people in China, the whole episode may never have happened. Chinese censors limited search results for Mr. Hu’s name on social media to posts from official accounts, none of which mentioned his exit. The state broadcaster’s news program that evening showed footage of Mr. Hu voting, followed by his empty seat later in the ceremony, without explanation.

Late on Saturday night, Xinhua, the state news agency, offered the first official acknowledgment of his departure, writing on Twitter that Mr. Hu was “not feeling well” and had been taken on vacation. “He is much better now” read the post. But Twitter is blocked in China, and neither Xinhua nor any other official news agency published a similar explanation inside China’s Internet firewall, further fueling speculation about the incident.

Regardless of what happened, the symbolism was unmistakable. The former Supreme Leader, historically the only person of stature to stand up to the current one, was ushered off the stage.

That left just one man in the spotlight: Mr. Xi, soon to slide into his third term, China’s most powerful leader in decades.

New York Times; photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

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