Questions swirl after former Chinese leader Hu departs

BEIJING (AP) — The two-decade congress of China’s ruling Communist Party is a tightly choreographed event. So when former Chinese President Hu Jintao was led off the stage without explanation on Saturday – as media around the world watched – questions swirled.

Speculation ranged from a health crisis to a protest attempt by the 79-year-old former leader, or a political purge by current President Xi Jinping. Xi has previously prosecuted retired officials on corruption charges, although they have never been as high up as Hu.

Tightly controlled Chinese state media did not report the incident, but the official Xinhua News Agency tweeted in english several hours later – as speculation raged overseas – that Hu was in poor health and needed to rest.

Major party events can be nerve-wracking: Former leader Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack at a meeting aged 73, sparking the student-led pro-democracy movement that drove to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hu, who was reportedly in poor health, appeared confused during the incident, but not in obvious distress. As an aide held his arm, he shuffled off the stage, speaking briefly with Xi and patting Premier Li Keqiang on the shoulder. Throughout the process, most of the other delegates stared silently ahead.

Xinhua’s tweet, while believable, did not satisfy skeptics, and the truth may never be definitively known.

The idea that it may have been more than a health issue stemmed from Hu’s somewhat ambiguous relationship with Xi, who succeeded him as party leader in 2012. Xi is the tough son of a former communist, while mild-mannered Hu hails from a family of tea merchants and an engineering background.

Hu had preferred his protege, Li, as his successor. Li, who belonged to Hu’s Communist Youth League faction, instead secured second place in the party hierarchy.

On Saturday, in a sign of further consolidation of Xi’s power, the party congress removed Li from the leadership, removing him from the party’s 205-member Central Committee. Li and two others who had also been appointed under Hu and who were fired from the committee are expected to retire.

Hu left the meeting in the imposing Great Hall of the People shortly after the election of the new Central Committee, and more than two hours after the start of the session.

The spectacle was, in the words of Bill Bishop, a longtime China watcher, « humiliating. »

« The image of Hu Jintao being chased away is a perfect symbol of Xi’s absolute decimation of the ‘Communist Youth League’ faction, » Bishop wrote in his bulletin.

Another member of the same faction, Hu Chunhua, was denied a place on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in a leadership reshuffle at the end of the congress, despite being one of the first favourites. Hu Chunhua did not even make it to the 24-member Politburo one rung below.

Xi has steered China into what the party calls a « new era », a far cry from the legacy of former leader Deng Xiaoping, who launched China on its economic rise with market-oriented reforms – and also chose Hu as future leader.

It was Deng who appointed Hu to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee – from which China’s leaders come – at the relatively tender age of 49.

Xi broke with tradition by refusing to consult senior party officials such as Hu, or defer to their factional concerns, analysts say.

Hu attended the congress as a specially invited delegate, as is customary for retired senior officials. He was seated on stage next to Xi, in the front row with the party leaders.

It is not known whether he was able to participate in the discussions – this is part of the secrecy that surrounds the events of the party. Since leaving the presidency in 2013, he has rarely been seen in public, drawing extra attention to his sudden departure from Congress.

The Associated Press


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