The black box of notorious opaqueness in which Chinese politics typically operates was briefly opened a couple of weeks ago with the abrupt escorting of former paramount leader of China, Hu Jintao, from a convening of the National Congress.
Hu was seated next to President Xi Jinping, his successor, per tradition, who was in the process of securing his third five-year term at the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) convening. A convention of this size with all CCP members only occurs once every five years and was particularly significant, as autocratic leader Xi Jinping’s precedent-breaking third term was set in stone and his government’s “belligerent foreign policy reaffirmed.”
Xi’s endeavor for an unprecedented third term is emblematic of the world order the CCP currently faces. Similar to the overwhelming American support for FDR’s third term in the 1930s, the Chinese elite feel compelled to keep a strong, renowned leader at the helm. Despite the major political importance of the meeting, the largest headline in foreign newspapers to come out of the momentous event was the escorting of Hu out of the Great Hall, especially considering the fact that it occurred during a brief window where foreign press were permitted to take pictures.
Hu was attending Congress as a member of the Presidium – a body composed of party elders that oversee key events and legislative processes – and, according to available footage, was reaching for papers before Li Zhanshu - an outgoing member of the politburo - moved the papers from Hu’s reach. President Xi spotted the incident, appeared to call over two aides, and subsequently removed Hu from the Great Hall. Hu seemed to be confused and slightly agitated throughout the transpiring of events, making an unreadable comment to Xi before being taken out of the room.
What exactly happened here? I propose three distinct possibilities:
A Health Emergency
Global audiences have been told by CCP-sponsored stations that it was simply a health-related situation that is being dealt with. Xinhua News, the Chinese state media, stated on Twitter that Hu had been recently ill and was removed from the room by staff so he could properly rest. With this, it is important to note that Twitter is banned in China, so this proclamation was intended to be read solely by foreign audiences. China’s ambassador to Korea corroborated this claim; Ambassador Xing Haiming stated that media reports on the reasoning of Hu’s forced departure were “completely skewed” and that Hu simply “has to step outside for a break.”
Public Humiliation and a Purge of the Communist Youth League
Some are convinced they bore witness to a political purging of sorts, or, at the very least, a deliberate public humiliation of the former leader. During the infrequent event, Xi strengthened his grip on Chinese politics by appointing a standing committee composed totally of loyalists, therefore excluding the three most senior members of the once-powerful Communist Youth League (CYL) - the faction of which Hu belonged to. James Palmer, Foreign Policy magazine’s editor, noted that several CYL members have faced the same fate in the past as well, arguing that this physical expulsion of Hu would not exactly be unparalleled.
Bill Bishop, a China expert and author of the Sinocism newsletter, wrote that the image of Hu being removed speaks to Xi’s “absolute decimation of the once-powerful Communist Youth League faction,” adding that if this remains the final legacy of 79 year-old Hu, it will be “humiliating.” Perhaps this is precisely what Xi wants.
Hu was Preparing to Protes
When analyzing the rationale behind his removal, others emphasize the fact that Hu was attempting to read a paper and being physically restricted from doing so. Furthermore, the footage of Li Zhanshu preventing Hu’s possession of the papers was not made public until days after the event, potentially demonstrating some moral culpability of the CCP’s elite. Some believe this suggests the fact that Hu was planning to speak out against Xi’s expulsion of CYL leaders and Hu’s proteges, ultimately ending the legacy of his once-mighty faction on a rather unpleasant note.
However, Sung Wenti, a political scientist at Australia National University’s Centre on China in the World, told The Guardian he does not think that would be Xi’s style. “Even if we entertain the notion that Xi purged Hu because Hu wanted to raise objections in public, Xi would have done that before foreign press were allowed into the room,” he said. A purge of Hu in this fashion illustrates that there is some level of dissent still present in the higher ranks, which is not great for Xi’s perceived invincibility.
Hu has not been seen in public since, and when all is said and done, foreign media outlets may never uncover the reasoning behind his uncharacteristic moment. Yet, it remains just that: uncharacteristic. For a brief moment in time, there was a misplaced foot in the delicately choreographed dance of Chinese politics and the world’s eyes snapped to take note and hone in. Whether it was a senior moment or a sinister moment, the strange sequence of events occurred at a key point in modern Chinese history and the ramifications of this meeting will likely reverberate in upcoming world events - Xi stays and Hu goes.