Xi Jinping unveiled his top leadership team today, filling it with close allies from his inner circle — and sidelining those outside his political orbit, including premier Li Keqiang.
But a different figure took the spotlight yesterday, at the end of the 20th Party Congress — former top leader Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, who was unexpectedly led out of the room during the closing ceremony.
Hu, 79, was seated directly next to Xi on stage when he was approached by two men. They spoke briefly, with Hu appearing initially reluctant. Hu eventually stood, escorted by the two men from his seat, with one holding his arm.
On his way out, Hu was seen to gesture to Xi and say something to the leader. He then patted Premier Li — an ally and former protege of Hu — on his shoulder. Both Xi and Li appear to have nodded; it was not clear if Xi spoke.
“We really have not seen any kind of disruption to the proceedings like this pretty much ever, as far as I can recall,” said Victor Shih, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the University of California San Diego.
The circumstances around his departure were not immediately clear, and CNN was censored on air in China when reporting on Hu’s exit.
The dramatic moment has not been reported in state-run Chinese-language media or discussed on Chinese social media, where such conversation is highly-restricted — but it set off a firestorm of speculation overseas, with some analysts suggesting it could be a power play on Xi’s part.
Hu held the role of China’s top leader from 2003 to 2013, presiding over a comparatively more open and economically integrated era. Hu oversaw China’s landmark 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and a decade of double-digit economic growth.
Hu was never as powerful as Xi is now — owing in part to the balancing influence of multiple party factions and party elders, including his predecessor Jiang Zemin.
Hu was associated with a faction connected to the Communist Youth League, a grouping whose influence has diminished considerably during Xi’s rule.
State media breaks silence: On Saturday night, China’s state-run news agency Xinhua wrote on its English-language Twitter account that Hu “insisted on attending the closing session of the Party’s 20th National Congress, despite the fact that he has been taking time to recuperate recently.”
“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,” Xinhua wrote.
Twitter is banned in China. To date, Xinhua has not posted the statement on their website or Chinese-language social media.
And many experts remain doubtful. Shih pointed out after Hu cast his vote for the new lineup of the Central Committee, he had sat down “in a pretty stable manner” — whereas if he’d been feeling ill, staff could have “whisked him away and given him medical care” right after the vote.