Because the Chinese Communist Party is among the world’s most secretive political organizations, China watchers jump on any new piece of information that might imply something about the country’s direction. Today, we were given an unexpected detail. In the middle of today’s session of the 20th Communist Party Congress, former General Secretary Hu Jintao was abruptly escorted off stage. Hu initially appeared to resist being moved, and two men pulled him up rather gruffly. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, was sitting next to him and did not look surprised. The two exchanged some brief words before Hu’s exit.
Social media was soon abuzz with rumors based on little more than the body language in the video. In China, the public can discern very little about how senior leaders interact with one another, where they stand on policies, and how the decisions that matter are actually made. Outside observers have no clue—and likely never will—what really happened to Hu in that moment.
This dramatic, mysterious bit of theater only underscored the general theme of the congress—Xi’s ultimate consolidation of power. Hu’s feeble exit from the stage is a sad symbol of the current trajectory of Chinese politics. Hu, and his allies and protégés, represent a more technocratic, moderate arm of the party—one decidedly less repressive, and more open to the outside world. Xi and his camp have been gaining momentum for a decade but at least had to share some power with Hu’s faction. This arrangement has been put to rest. In its place, China has a single dominant leader surrounded solely by people who enable him, not restrain him.
The most benign explanation for what happened to Hu today is the party’s current line: He was sick and needed to be helped offstage. The nature of his purported illness is unknown. Hu is now 79 years old, has been largely out of the public view for some time, and appears to have aged considerably. His movements are slow, and earlier in the congress he had apparently needed some help in walking. But something still seemed off today, because Hu seemed visibly upset and reluctant to leave. The other senior party leaders showed little concern for him and mostly avoided eye contact—not quite what you would expect if your comrade had fallen ill.
A juicier interpretation is that Xi Jinping somehow orchestrated the incident to publicly embarrass his predecessor. The party congress is a highly scripted event, and even this awkward moment must have occurred with Xi’s approval. During the remainder of the congress, Xi will install loyalists at the top levels of the party and claim a third term as general secretary. These moves come at the expense of Hu’s network. Having Hu literally pulled away could be a way for Xi to signal his dominance and send a message to other elites and the public. This is something dictators do, after all. Still, as James Palmer of Foreign Policy noted earlier today, Hu Jintao poses little threat to Xi at this point, given his age and declining stature in the system.
I have seen juicier interpretations still—such as that Hu was actively being purged at that very moment and would soon be charged with corruption and formally investigated by the party’s disciplinary apparatus. This would be dramatic indeed, but making such a gesture at the congress itself would be cruel and unnecessary. The party line about Hu being ill does not fit this narrative.
In the end, how you interpret that moment depends partly on how you interpret China’s political system. When outsiders analyze elite Chinese politics, we must be careful not to project our own biases or speak with more confidence than is warranted. Unfortunately, the speculation and rumormongering about Hu are a product of the secrecy of the party itself. This week is yet another reminder of the absurdity of the way China selects its rulers.
The more important piece of information that has emerged from the congress has to do with personnel—the shuffling of party leaders into the elite decision-making bodies: the party’s Central Committee, Politburo, and Politburo Standing Committee. Here, the story is much clearer: Xi Jinping is stacking these bodies with loyalists. Today, key leaders close to Hu—the Politburo Standing Committee members Li Keqiang and Wang Yang—were left off the party’s Central Committee, which means they are set to retire. As of this writing, all signs suggest the party leadership will be completely dominated by Xi, in a way it hasn’t been in the first 10 years of his rule.
Hu’s 10-year tenure has previously been described in the West as a “lost decade” for China, a period in which both and economic and political reform stalled. Many now look back at his tenure with some fondness, as a time when the Chinese government was more predictable, more capable of cooperation, and gentler with its own people. With Hu now firmly sidelined, Xi’s voice resonates louder still.