Illness or power play? Withdrawal from Hu Congress sparks speculation storm

Illness or power play? Withdrawal from Hu Congress sparks speculation storm


Former Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s abrupt departure from a key political meeting made global headlines and provided a rare dramatic moment at the meticulously choreographed event that would help President Xi Jinping win a historic third term.

And while Beijing’s state media later said Hu was escorted by security forces due to ill health, the 79-year-old appeared reluctant to leave his seat alongside Xi – prompting speculation his departure was a political power play.

Here are some of the main theories about what happened:

– Illness –

The state-run Xinhua News Agency said late Saturday that Hu insisted on attending the session even though he was not feeling well.

“When he was not feeling well during the session, due to health concerns, his staff escorted him to a room adjacent to the meeting venue to rest. He’s doing much better now,” Xinhua said on Twitter, a social media platform blocked in China.

State broadcaster CCTV showed Hu casting a ballot for the party’s new leadership during a closed session on the last day of the congress – before foreign journalists were allowed to enter the venue.

Later, a steward attempted to grab a seated Hu by the arm before he was shaken off. The steward then attempted to pick Hu up with both hands under his armpits and he was led out while most of his colleagues stared straight ahead.

Speculations that Hu was suffering from health problems have long been circulating, Alfred Wu Muluan, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.

“Hu has aged dramatically,” Wu said, adding that by the time he handed power to Xi in 2012, the former leader already seemed to have “some kind of Parkinson’s-like symptoms.”

Hu’s hands “shook a lot” during another public appearance in 2015, Wu noted.

– Political demonstration of power –

But others said the unexpected move was meant to send a strong political signal to those in the party who might oppose Xi’s coronation.

Hu’s 2003-2013 tenure was seen as a period of increased tolerance of various political factions within the Communist Party and greater openness to the world – a period of comparative pluralism now unthinkable in China under Xi.

Hu’s brief departure “must therefore be read along with the scathing criticism of the Hu era outlined in Xi’s report of the 20th Party Congress,” said Henry Gao of the Singapore Management University.

“Given the carefully choreographed party rallies, it is no coincidence that this was allowed to be shown in front of all party delegates and the media,” he said.

Xi on Sunday promoted some of his closest Communist Party allies, cementing his position as the nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

He also removed several officials seen as reform-minded and close to his predecessor, including Hu Chunhua, a vice premier once dubbed “Little Hu” due to his similarities to China’s former leader.

“The way Hu was basically dragged out of the Great Hall of the People is a way of saying unequivocally that this new era has no place for anyone associated with the Jiang Hu era,” he said William Sima, China expert at Australian National University, told AFP, citing Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

– dissatisfaction –

Another expert suggested deposing Hu after expressing reservations about the current Chinese leader’s policy decisions.

“My guess is that (Hu) was very dissatisfied with the composition of the Central Committee,” said Willy Lam, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“I think he must have said something that upset Xi Jinping, maybe some words of protest, and that’s why Xi Jinping called security to drag him away.”

– Opaque politics –

The Communist Party does not usually air their dirty laundry in public.

Critics say that’s why Hu’s ouster sparked so much speculation – there’s just no transparency about the power struggles within the party.

The escorting of the former leader was “unusual but not momentous,” argued Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“It’s impossible to know what happened to Hu Jintao,” added Mary Gallagher, who specializes in Chinese politics at the University of Michigan.

“Even if he were ill… it’s hard to believe that the last CCP general secretary would be removed from the stage,” she added.

“It shows that Xi is in charge and nobody is challenging him.”

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