The 20th Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party concluded yesterday, after a week of reshuffling ministers and speeches on the government’s direction. Xi Jinping has been confirmed for an unprecedented third term as China’s Supreme Leader.
One of the defining moments of the congress, which is held every five years, was former President Hu Jintao apparently being strong-armed out of the conference hall on the last day. The new line-up of China’s ruling elite, also announced yesterday, puts power even more firmly in Xi Jinping’s hands.
What happened to Hu?
Hu Jintao served as the President (or Supreme Leader) of China from 2002-2012, after which he was succeeded by current leader Xi Jinping. During the closing session of the party congress yesterday, he was escorted from his seat, appearing confused and seemingly trying to resist standing from the table.
On his way out, he exchanged brief words with Xi Jinping, who was seated next to him on his right, and patted Premier Li Keqiang on the shoulder. Official news agency Xinhua said on their English-language Twitter that Hu had been feeling unwell, but insisted on attending the closing ceremony.
“When he was not feeling well during the session,” said the statement, staff escorted him out to ‘rest’. “Now, he is much better.” No official statement about Hu’s removal has been made on Chinese media; Twitter is, of course, banned in China. Video of the incident seems to have been censored on Chinese social media platforms.
It’s true that Hu is not in the best shape – he’s 79 years old, and had to be helped on stage at the congress opening ceremony, too. Many are sceptical the incident was totally benign, but if it was a theatrical show of power over an older leadership generation by Xi, it was a cruel and largely unnecessary one.
Hu Jintao’s Presidency was marked by collective leadership, much softer diplomacy and a technocratic power shift. He was a much more moderate leader than Xi Jinping. Still, he doesn’t pose much of a threat to Xi, who has eradicated the rest of Hu’s Youth League Faction from the CCP.
It’s unlikely his removal yesterday was a ‘purge’, as Hu’s appearance at the congress in general has not been censored in the media. If it was, it would be an extreme way of ousting the old President, even for Xi. Either way, it was a public humiliation for the ‘retired elders’ of Chinese politics.
The Congress reshuffle – who’s in and who’s out?
A show of power over the more moderate Hu is even more redundant given Xi’s reshuffle of the CCP’s inner leadership.
2300 delegates from all over the country gather in Beijing’s centre for the Congress every five years. 200 of them are selected to the Central Committee, which then goes on to (nominally) elect the 25-member Politburo. The Politburo then appoints the 7 members of the Standing Committee – the most important and influential Chinese politicians.
Xi Jinping has reshuffled his cabinet in such a manner as to ensure all seven of the next Standing Committee are loyalists.
Li Keqiang, the current Premier and number 2 official, will not return to the Central Committee. Interestingly, Li is seen as one of Hu Jintao’s protégées, and a proponent of market reforms – in contrast to Xi Jinping’s agenda of state control in the economy. Three more of the current Standing Committee – most seen as more moderate voices – will also not return.
As Ho-fung Hung, Political Economy professor at Johns Hopkins University, comments, “right now…there is only one voice [in the CCP]”. Xi Jinping’s.
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