Chinese former President Hu Jintao was unexpectedly escorted out of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the closing ceremony of a congress of the ruling Communist Party on Saturday.
Hu, 79, Xi Jinping's immediate predecessor, was seated to the left of Xi. He was led off the stage of the main auditorium of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing by two stewards.
Video footage widely circulated online showed a steward repeatedly trying to lift Hu from his seat, drawing concerned looks from officials seated nearby. Hu then put his hand on a sheet of paper placed on Xi's folder but Xi quickly put his hand on the sheet.
China's top legislator Li Zhanshu, seated to Hu's right, gave the former president's folder to a steward, wiping his own head with a cloth after Hu finally stood up. Throughout the process, most of the other delegates, some considered to be among the most powerful in China, stared silently ahead.
Hu, who has reportedly been in poor health, appeared confused during the incident, although not in obvious distress. He appeared to resist leaving as the stewards escorted him out, turning back to his seat at one point. On his way out, he spoke briefly with Xi and patted Premier Li Keqiang on the shoulder, seated to the right of Xi.
出了什么事，胡锦涛被带离闭幕式会场。 pic.twitter.com/Vayc3irany— 方舟子 (@fangshimin) October 22, 2022
What did he say to the man who replaced him, Xi Jinping, which prompted a nod from China's current leader? And what did he say to his protégé, Li Keqiang, as he tapped him on the shoulder before being ushered off stage?
When Hu was standing after being lifted from his seat with the two men before making his exit, Li Zhanshu appeared to try and rise from his seat, but was directed back down by a tug on his suit jacket by fellow Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning, seated next to him.
The spectacle was, in the words of longtime China watcher Bill Bishop, “humiliating.”
The “image of Hu Jintao being led out is a perfect symbol of Xi’s absolute decimation of the ‘Communist Youth League’ faction,” Bishop wrote in his newsletter.
Hu had favored his protégé, Li Keqiang, as his successor. Li, who belonged to Hu’s Communist Youth League faction, instead got the No. 2 spot in the party hierarchy.
On Saturday, in a sign of further consolidation of Xi’s power, the party congress removed Li from leadership entirely, dropping him from the party’s 205-member Central Committee, according to the Associated Press.
Li and two others who had also been appointed under Hu and were dropped from the committee are expected to go into retirement.
Why was former President Hu Jintao removed from the congress?
Speculation on the reason for Hu's removal ranged from a health crisis to an attempted protest by the former leader, or a political purge by current President Xi Jinping. Xi has previously gone after retired officials on corruption charges, though never one as high-ranking as Hu.
Video of the incident, highly unusual given that the twice-a-decade congress of China’s ruling Communist Party is a tightly choreographed event, was widely shared on Twitter but could not be found on China's heavily censored social media platforms. Twitter is blocked in China.
While China’s tightly controlled state media didn’t report the incident, the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency tweeted in English several hours later, as speculation raged overseas, that Hu was in poor health and needed to rest.
Xinhuanet reporter Liu Jiawen has learned 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.— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) October 22, 2022
"Xinhuanet reporter Liu Jiawen has learned 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," it said.
"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. Now, he is much better," a second tweet said.
On China's Twitter-like Weibo, a few social media users spoke of the incident by commenting on old posts featuring Hu, a common tactic used to evade cyberspace censors.
By evening, however, the comment sections of almost all Weibo posts containing Hu's name were no longer visible, according to a Reuters review.
Official state media coverage of the ceremony did not include the scene, which occurred as journalists were entering the hall. The official CCTV evening news coverage of the closing ceremony included footage with Hu as normal, from before the incident.
The once-in-five-year congress concluded with amendments to the party's constitution that cements the core status of Xi as the party head and the guiding role of his political thought within the party.
Reuters contributed to this report.