Mystery surrounds a curious event at the closing ceremony of the Communist Party Congress on Saturday, when former Chinese President Hu Jintao was unexpectedly escorted out of the main auditorium.
Hu, 79, who led the country from 2003 to 2013, was seated to the left of Xi. He was led off the stage at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing by two stewards.
Video footage shown by AFP showed a steward repeatedly trying to lift Hu from his seat, drawing looks of concern from officials seated nearby. Hu then put his hand on Xi’s folder, and then Xi put his hand on the folder.
China’s top legislator Li Zhanshu, seated to Hu’s right, gave the former president’s folder to a steward, wiping his own head with a cloth after Hu finally stood up.
Looking distressed, Hu appeared to resist leaving as the stewards escorted him out, turning back to his seat at one point. On his way out, he exchanged words with Xi and patted Premier Li Keqiang, seated to the right of Xi, on the shoulder.
BBC correspondent Stephen McDonell said there was speculation the incident was not an accident partly because of the highly scripted nature of such events, but also because Hu Jintao was a very different president, who ran a “much more collective leadership” that opened up to the world and was tolerant of new ideas”.
“The two most likely reasons for his departure are that it was either part of China’s power politics on full display, with a leader representing a former time being symbolically removed – or, that Hu Jintao has serious health problems,” he said.
Video Not Shown in China
Video of the incident, highly unusual given the meticulous stage management of most such events, was widely shared on Twitter but could not be found on China’s heavily censored social media platforms.
State media coverage of the ceremony did not include the scene, which occurred just as journalists were entering the hall.
On China’s Twitter-like Weibo, a few social media users alluded to the incident by commenting on old posts featuring Hu, a common tactic used to evade cyberspace censors.
By Saturday evening, however, the comments section of almost all Weibo posts containing Hu’s name were no longer visible.
Hu had appeared slightly unsteady last Sunday when he was assisted onto the same stage for the opening ceremony of the congress.
The once-in-five-years congress concluded with amendments to the party’s constitution that cements the core status of Xi and the guiding role of his political thought within the party.
PBOC Chief May Go
In other news on Saturday, China’s central bank chief Yi Gang is likely to step down after he was dropped from an elite body of the ruling Communist Party, with a former central banker a leading contender to succeed him, sources close to the central bank said.
The potential retirement in early 2023 of Yi, 64, has been the subject of intense speculation as he nears the official retirement age of 65 for minister-level officials.
The party congress also effectively removed Premier Li Keqiang from senior leadership. Li, China’s No-2 leader, is seen as a proponent of market-oriented reforms, which are at odds with Xi’s moves to expand state control over the economy.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard
NOTE: This report was updated with new details on October 22, 2022.