(CNSNews.com) – As the Chinese Communist Party’s five-yearly Congress handed President Xi Jinping a historic third term at the helm and boosted Xi loyalists into top positions, the unexpected removal of a former president struck a jarring note in what is usually a tightly-scripted event.
The state news agency Xinhua later reported that Hu Jintao, who had been seated at Xi’s left hand in the front row of CCP leaders, was “not feeling well” and had therefore been escorted out of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People “for a rest.”
The 79-year-old has been reported to be in poor health. However, in video footage of the incident, Hu looks deeply reluctant to leave, sitting stolidly while an official wearing a face mask seems to be trying to persuade him.
The man can be seen gripping Hu by the upper arm, helping him to his feet. Even then the evidently confused Hu hesitated. He then said something to Xi, who briefly responded, before Hu was led out by the arm.
Xinhua’s later explanation was that “Hu Jintao insisted on attending the closing session of the Party’s 20th National Congress, despite the fact that he has been taking time to recuperate recently.”
“When he was not feeling well during the session, his staff, for his health, accompanied him to a room next to the meeting venue for a rest,” it said. “Now, he is much better.”
Hu was China’s president from 2003-2013 and CCP general-secretary from 2002-2012. China’s political system is notoriously opaque and the full story of his ushering out of the hall may never be known.
The unusual incident occurred on the last day of the CCP’s Congress in which Xi cemented his grip on power in the world’s most populous nation. Four years ago he oversaw amendments to the 1982 national constitution including the abolition of a two-term limit for China’s top job.
In addition to formalizing his new term, the party filled the CCP’s top organ, the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee, with individuals loyal to Xi.
On particular note was the elevation to the No. 2 position (premier, and leader of the State Council) of Li Qiang, a close Xi ally and CCP secretary in Shanghai. He will replace Li Keqiang, an advocate of economic liberalization and a longstanding ally of Hu Jintao.
(Li Keqiang was seated at Xi’s right hand during Hu Jintao’s removal, and as Hu was escorted out he briefly patted Li’s shoulder.)
Commenting on the CCP Congress’ outcome, Prof. Yang Zhang of the Washington-based American University’s School of International Service said the world has witnessed “the breaking of decade-long rules, and the birth of an unlimited supreme leader.”
“These are not entirely surprising, but Xi’s grab of power is still beyond our expectation,” Zhang said. “He is now a truly modern emperor.”
On the departure of Li Keqiang and elevation of Li Qiang, Zhang pointed out that the latter has no central government experience, calling his advancement to the No. 2 post extraordinary.
Li Qiang’s promotion came despite the fact he oversaw the unpopular and economically-costly “zero-COVID” lockdown last spring of Shanghai, China’s biggest city.
Recalling that episode, Zhang said that his appointment to the premiership “is not only unprecedented but also showcases to everyone that loyalty rather than popularity is the key for your promotion.”
Following the 20th Congress, neither the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee nor the larger Politburo – the decision-making body whose 25 top officials oversee the CCP – includes a woman. According to Zhang, the party has not had an all-male Politburo since 1997.
Xinhua quoted Xi as saying after the plenary session that the nation was “now taking confident strides on a new journey to turn China into a modern socialist country in all respects.”
He said China has eradicated absolute poverty and built the largest education, social security, and healthcare systems in the world, while consolidating gains in the fight against corruption.
The CCP could not “rest on its laurels just yet,” however, since the Congress came “at a time when the world is undergoing accelerating changes unseen in a century, and a new phase of uncertainty and transformation.”
The journey ahead would be long and arduous, Xi said, but with determined steps “we will reach our destination.”
“We’ll not be daunted by high winds, choppy waters or even dangerous storms, for the people will always have our back and give us confidence.”