For many observers, it’s the moment that has come to define strongman Xi Jinping’s predicament in China: the withdrawal of his weak predecessor, Hu Jintao, from a key Communist Party meeting in a five-year leadership reshuffle, apparently at Xi’s behest. .
Images of the two men carrying the 79-year-old from his seat and towards the exit were broadcast around the world as the party’s National Congress ended on Saturday, prompting days of speculation over whether Hu had been the victim of a deliberate public power grab. play
This week, those rumors have only grown – despite Chinese state media saying on Twitter that Hu left due to ill health – and the intrigue is likely to grow even more with the release of footage showing 90 seconds of his impromptu. remove
Footage released by Channel NewsAsia on Tuesday shows a series of high-level exchanges between senior party leaders in which Huri is repeatedly denied access to official documents in front of him.
It shows Li Zhanshu, the party’s third party official, sitting next to Hu at the table on the stage, taking the documents from Hu and placing them under a red folder. When Hu reaches for the documents, Li pushes them away.
Xi, sitting on the other side of Hu, glances over the exchanges and calls over a senior aide, to whom he speaks briefly. Moments later, a second aide rushes over, receives an instruction from Xi, and speaks to a visibly shocked Hu.
According to footage circulated on Saturday, Hu – who appears reluctant to leave – is lifted from his chair, grabbed by the arm and led outside.
None of the footage posted on Saturday or Tuesday has been broadcast in China. The incident has not been reported in the Chinese media or discussed on Chinese social media, where conversations about senior leaders are highly restricted.
On Saturday night, China’s official Xinhua news agency tweeted in English that Hu was “going” to the closing ceremony despite being in poor health and was taken outside after feeling unwell. However, there was no mention of the incident in China, where Twitter is blocked.
On Weibo, censors also limited search results for vague keywords like “escorted” or “leaving the meeting” in an effort to prevent users from making subtle references to the incident, according to China censorship analyst Eric Liu. Digital times.
Tuesday’s footage has fueled heated speculation about what was in the document and why Hu was not allowed to see it, and left observers divided about what prompted his exit.
Some say it was probably due to Hu’s poor health or mental state; After retiring in 2013, he is seen less and less in public. Others suggest it may be a deliberate power play by Xi to demonstrate his unparalleled authority.
Like many unexplained episodes in the black box of Chinese elite politics, the real reason behind Hu’s unexpected departure may never be known. But experts say the symbolism, unintended or otherwise, is hard to miss: Having eliminated any trace of influence from party bosses or rival factions, Xi has ushered in a new era of one-man rule surrounded only by staunch loyalists.
Meanwhile, Hu has lost many of the defining characteristics of his decade in power, when he presided over a period of double-digit economic growth and comparative openness.
Hu also left his party and military posts when he retired in 2012 after two terms in office, winning praise from Xi for his “broad-mindedness and noble character”.
Hu has never been as powerful as Xi is now (partly due to the collective leadership model and the balancing of factions and elders of the various parties, including his predecessor Jiang Zemin), who was associated with a faction linked to the Communist Youth League. a once powerful group whose influence has waned significantly under Xi’s rule.
Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, said the latest footage suggested Hu’s dramatic exit was probably unplanned.
“For whatever reason, Xi ordered to escort Hu when he must have thought that Hu might not behave as Xi wanted,” he said.
Some have interpreted the new video as a sign of Hu’s alleged displeasure with the outcome of the congress, which saw Xi consolidate his power by stacking the new leadership team with his loyal allies and protégés.
Premier Li Keqiang and the head of China’s top advisory body, Wang Yang, both retired from the party’s top Standing Committee of the Politburo, less than a year short of the unofficial retirement age of 68. Li and Wang are seen as closer to Hu’s sphere of influence.
In an even more shocking revelation on Sunday, Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, another protégé of the elder Hu (the two are not related), was removed from the new 24-member Politburo. Once seen as a rising star preparing for the top leadership, Hu Chunhua’s political future has dimmed under Xi.
But Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, said the planned public purge at the close of the conference was unlikely, given the party’s emphasis on unity.
“The Chinese Communist Party values the image of unity and control, and more so than ever under Xi,” Sung said.
If Xi had wanted to clear Hu to avoid publicizing the former leader’s objections, he would have done so before the foreign press entered the auditorium, Sung said.
“A high-level purge of Hu at a critical time like the 20th Party Congress shows the presence of dissent, and that Xi is at least ‘challenging,'” he said. “And none of it is great for Xi’s image of invincibility.”
The apparent coldness of the other leaders on stage also surprised many observers. Few showed any concern for Hu, and many avoided looking in his direction.
“There is no empathy,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
In order to rise in the party, officials have learned to hide their emotions and personal characteristics, Wu said: “They try to be like a machine in the party machine.”
On the way out, Hu patted his protégé, Premier Li, on the shoulder, who nodded and briefly turned to watch him leave. Beside Li, Wang sat up straight and stared straight ahead, seemingly frozen in motion.
Down at the edge of the stage, Hu Chunhua didn’t even glance at the party elder as he passed. Instead, he looked straight ahead with a raised brow and his arms crossed over his chest.
But while the real reason for the elder Hu’s departure has never been revealed, the incident has nevertheless sent a clear message about Xi’s absolute power, analysts say.
Hu’s undignified exit showed that “Xi has reduced the once powerful (Communist) Youth League faction to insignificance,” Tsang said at the University of London.
“With no successor in sight and the previous leader humiliated, Xi projected to the party … that no one in the party should look over his shoulder for another leader, whether future or past,” Tsang said.
“Now there is only one leader in China.”