It is a moment that for many observers has come to define strongman leader Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on China: his visibly frail predecessor, Hu Jintao, being escorted out of a key Communist Party meeting during a five-yearly leadership reshuffle – apparently at Xi’s behest.
Images of two men ushering the 79-year-old from his seat and toward the exit were beamed across the world as the party’s National Congress came to a close Saturday, leading to days of speculation over whether Hu was the victim of a deliberately public power play.
This week, those rumors have only grown – despite a claim by Chinese state media on Twitter that Hu left due to ill-health – and the intrigue is likely to grow further still with the release of footage showing the 90 seconds leading up to his sudden removal.
The footage, released by Singapore broadcaster CNA on Tuesday, shows a series of high-level exchanges between senior party leaders, in which Hu is repeatedly prevented from looking at official documents in front of him.
It shows Li Zhanshu, the party’s outgoing number-three official, who is sitting next to Hu at the front table on stage, take the documents from Hu’s hand and place them under a red folder. When Hu then reaches for the documents, Li pulls them away.
Xi, who is sat on Hu’s other side, glances at the exchanges and summons a senior aide to whom he speaks briefly. Moments later, a second aide hurries over, receives an instruction from Xi, then speaks to an apparently nonplussed Hu.
As per the footage that circulated on Saturday, Hu – who appears reluctant to leave – is then lifted from his chair, taken by the arm and escorted out.
None of the footage – either that released on Saturday or Tuesday – has been broadcast in China. Neither has the incident been reported in Chinese language media, or discussed on Chinese social media, where conversations around senior leaders are highly restricted.
Late on Saturday night, China’s official Xinhua news agency tweeted in English that Hu “insisted on attending” the closing ceremony despite his poor health and was escorted out after feeling unwell. However, within China, where Twitter is blocked, the incident was not mentioned.
On Weibo, censors even restricted the search results for vague keywords such as “escorted away” or “leaving the meeting,” in an apparent effort to prevent users from making veiled references to the incident, according to Eric Liu, a censorship analyst with China Digital Times.
Tuesday’s footage has fueled fervent speculation about what was in the document and why Hu was not allowed to see it – and left observers divided over what sparked his exit.
Some maintain it was likely due to Hu’s poor health or mental state – after retiring in 2013, he has been seen in public looking increasingly frail. Others suggest it could be a deliberate power play by Xi to show his unrivaled authority.