The Chinese Communist Party Congress, an event occurring every five years to appoint Party leaders and determine future priorities, ended with a dramatic climax on Saturday in which two officers appeared to manhandle and expel 79-year-old former President Hu Jintao from his seat, clearly against his will.
Hu served as president and chairman of the Communist Party prior to current dictator Xi Jinping, who assumed an unprecedented third term at the helm of the country on Saturday following a vote by the communist elite. The vote occurred shortly after the very physical removal of an apparently frail Hu, who was seated less than one foot from Xi and appeared to plead for the dictator to intervene and prevent his expulsion, to no avail.
Hu’s tenure was largely marked by his failure to assert himself as national dictator or a major influential personality in the Party, even as leader. It is also notable in that it ended voluntarily, after Hu chose to step down and allow then-Vice President Xi to take over in 2013. At the time, Xi applauded him for his “deep consideration toward the development of the Party, the country and military” and “noble character” in resigning.
Video captured by Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Saturday morning Beijing time showed two men abruptly approach Hu, who had not behaved in any apparent disruptive way prior to the incident, and take away his official paperwork. The men then begin grabbing Hu under his arms and dragging him away. Hu appears to try to take Xi’s papers, as the dictator is seated beside him, but Xi holds his papers down. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, seated next to Xi, appear to calmly nod in Hu’s direction as he is dragged away wearing an expression of fear.
Adding to the intrigue is an apparent attempt by Party official Li Zhanshu, seated on the other side of Hu, to stand up and help him as the men begin grabbing him, but Xi ally Wang Huning grabs his arm and discourages him from intervening.
The men dragging Hu away do not appear to be mere security guards, as they are wearing Party name tags. Online observers identified one of the men as a top Communist Party official, Kong Shaoxun.
— 自由亚洲电台 (@RFA_Chinese) October 22, 2022
— 自由亚洲电台 (@RFA_Chinese) October 22, 2022
The Communist Party has not yet, at press time, explained what happened to necessitate Hu’s removal, which many international observers have described as shocking and humiliating for the elderly former president. Adding to suspicions that he may have been preparing to vote against a third term for Xi as chairman of the Party is the fact that the Chinese government moved rapidly to censor any mentions of Hu or the incident at the Party congress on Weibo, the state-controlled social media site.
“Search results for ‘Hu Jintao’ on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo appeared to be heavily censored Saturday afternoon, with the most recent result dated Friday and posts limited to those of official accounts,” AFP observed.
The state-run propaganda outlet Global Times published an extensive, glowing report on Saturday’s Congress session that entirely omitted any mention of Hu Jintao, focusing instead on Xi’s supremacy within the Party.
“The week-long 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) successfully concluded on Saturday in Beijing, and it noted that the establishment of Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole,” the Global Times reported, “and the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era has set the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on ‘an irreversible historical course.’”
The newspaper did not note that any single member of the Party objected to Xi’s permanence in power, claiming that his “re-election” “required all Party members to acquire a deep understanding of the decisive significance of this major achievement, more conscientiously uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position … and uphold the Central Committee’s authority and its centralized, unified leadership.”
No Communist Party Congress coverage in the Global Times mentioned Hu at all this week, despite his presence at the opening event along with a host of other retired officials.
The Xinhua News Agency, another official Chinese government outlet, published photos from Saturday of Hu seated alongside Xi Jinping. It also published an explanation of the events on Twitter – a social media outlet Chinese citizens who are not high-ranking Party officials cannot access.
Xinhua claimed that Hu “insisted on attending the closing session” despite needing to “recuperate” and that he “was not feeling well” when two men violently ousted him from the event.
“Now he is much better,” the government mouthpiece claimed.
When he was not feeling well during the session, his staff, for his health, accompanied him to a room next to the meeting venue for a rest. Now, he is much better.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) October 22, 2022
Foreign Policy‘s James Palmer observed that Hu is nearly the last of his cohort in the Party, as Xi Jinping’s routine purges of those he does not consider loyalists have imprisoned or otherwise silenced nearly all of Hu’s allies.
“Many of his former allies have been arrested in Xi’s purges, most notably his chief aide Ling Jihua in 2015,” Palmer wrote. “Hu was associated with a power network of former leaders, like himself, of the Communist Youth League; that faction appears to have been effectively destroyed.”
He speculated that a variety of possibilities could have resulted in the strange incident – from Hu indeed suffering a health incident or a dementia-fueled episode to the chance that “information suddenly came up that made Xi — who would have had to personally approve any such move — afraid that Hu might abstain or even vote against him in the rounds of otherwise unanimous voting that finished off the Party Congress.”
“That could have been a remark by Hu to his former colleagues backstage or perhaps even signs of dementia that caused a sudden panic that something might go wrong. That would make Hu’s confusion understandable,” Palmer mused.
Yet prior incidents of elderly Party members embarrassing themselves, or Xi, have occurred largely without punishment. During the last Party Congress in 2017, Jiang Zemin, the president who preceded Hu, spent most of Xi Jinping’s three-hour speech yawning, sleeping, checking his watch, and reading, clear signs of disrespect. Jiang was 91 at the time and became a sensation on Chinese regime-controlled social media outlets with only minimal censorship.
Currently 96, Jiang did not attend this year’s Congress, though few questioned his absence.