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The Hu Jintao mystery is testing the limits of China’s observation


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The Chinese Communist Party’s annual congress was a highly choreographed affair, designed to cement Xi Jinping’s status as China’s undisputed leader. But it was a seemingly unscripted moment that really got people talking: The unexplained public ousting of former leader Hu Jintao.

The incident, which saw Hu walk away from the scene as the party congress wrapped up on Saturday, has led to fervent speculation among seasoned China watchers and moonlighting workers.

A new video released by Singapore news agency CNA on Monday with a better look at the episode provided new clues, but no real answers, only adding to the confusion about what is happening at the upper levels of the Chinese leadership.

Either way, the incident offers further infuriating evidence of Chinese leadership’s opacity. Before Xi took power as China’s leader in 2012, many believed he would be a quiet pragmatist like Hu, his predecessor as general secretary of the Communist Party of China the previous decade.

But Xi has instead ruthlessly cemented his own power in Beijing, abolishing presidential term limits and refusing to appoint a successor. He has led a crackdown in Xinjiang that the United Nations says may amount to crimes against humanity and has stifled dissent in Hong Kong.

Some fear his ultimate ambition is to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control – an act of imperial hubris that could spark a world war.

From Mao to Xi: power plays out in the succession of Chinese leadership

In an unusual moment, former Chinese President Hu Jintao was unexpectedly escorted out of the closing ceremony of the Communist Party of China meeting on October 22. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty/Reuters)

For many, Hu’s exit from the party conference was a sign of Xi’s callousness. Geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer said Hu had been publicly humiliated because of “power politics”, while former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt suggested that Xi showed no sympathy when his predecessor was expelled.

But there were others who felt that the gray-haired Hu at 79 had appeared frail – and that some sort of health episode could have triggered his outing, as state media claimed. Chinese state. Bill Bishop of the China-watching newspaper Sinocism noted that Hu’s son, a senior party official himself, was in the audience. Purging one without the other seems unlikely, Bishop suggested.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, an unnamed Hong Kong-based Chinese expert openly dismissed any talk of a ‘Stalinist purge’ of Western voices and said it would make no sense to Hu or anyone else. another to challenge Xi on the last day of the party congress.

What binds all the theories is the lack of solid information. Experts base their impressions on a handful of short snippets from outside media that were at the party. As my colleague Christian Shepherd wrote this weekend, Hu was present at the opening ceremony and was expected to stay for the duration of the event. Instead, he was kicked out midway through the ceremony.

“Soon after foreign reporters entered the room, two men in suits helped him up and guided him off stage, leaving an empty chair to Xi’s left,” Shepherd wrote, adding that the video showed “a possibly hesitant or confused Hu first”. exchanging words with the men and Xi. After standing up, he hovered in place, took a few slow steps, then stopped and turned to say something to Xi, who gave a brief nod but stood staring past the gathered delegates. .

Chinese state media offered no clues as to what happened. It was only after widespread coverage of the incident that Twitter Xinhua News Agency account tweeted that Hu “didn’t feel well during the session”.

The new CNA footage adds a particularly notable detail: Hu had examined some documents on the table in front of him, before the current speaker of China’s legislature, Premier Li Zhanshu, took them from him. That’s when Xi calls the other men, who take Hu away.

But this document could be a vital clue or a red herring, depending on how you look at it. As a former Chinese insider told the BBC, why would the party put a document in front of Hu if he was not allowed to see it? “No one can explain it until there is more evidence of what was in the case or what was being said at the scene,” said Deng Yuwen, former editor of the party newspaper, the Study Times.

Under Xi, China wants absolute security. It makes the world nervous.

Even if the speculation is off, the symbolism is powerful. In the past, it was widely expected that former leaders would continue to dominate even after leaving office. The Post’s William Wan reported from Beijing in 2012 that many expected Hu to exert influence over Xi through patronage and networks.

“Hu is trying to do with his successor what [former leader Jiang Zemin] did to Hu and what Deng Xiaoping did to Jiang,” an editor of a party publication told The Post. “Each generation tries to dominate the next.”

Now it seems clear that tradition has been broken. Hu’s ousting on Saturday came as Xi’s vision for the future was endorsed by the 2,300 delegates to the 20th National Congress, with himself as leader for at least five years. The era of two-term rulers seems to be over in China.

Meanwhile, China’s once powerful faction linked to the Communist Youth League – which includes both Hu and Li – has been effectively cut from power. Li, once seen as a potential leader and protege of Hu, was ousted not only from the premiership but also from the powerful seven-person Politburo Standing Committee.

Reading tea leaves may be more difficult than ever in China. Xi has increased the pressure on Chinese civilians to side, crushing not only dissent but also reasoned debate. Foreigners have few resources to understand the country. Western journalists are severely limited in what they can do in the country, while public data is held back.

Even powerful Western spy agencies are struggling to understand what is happening in the country, as the inconclusive US-led push to understand the origins of covid-19 has shown. Ironically, the massive crackdown on CIA informants that crippled US operations in the country began in 2010 – the last days of Hu’s China.

In many ways, this resembles the problems faced by Russia watchers during the Soviet Union. With little outside information, the Kremlinology was forced to create “absolute certainties based on cloudy numbers swirling in [their] crystal balls,” in the words of the late historian Robert Conquest. And yet most missed the impending collapse of Russian Communism in the 1980s.

Pekingologists risk a similar miscalculation when examining Hu’s fate. “Ultimately, how you interpret this moment is partly dependent on how you interpret the Chinese political system,” Princeton China policy expert Rory Truex wrote for The Atlantic this week.


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