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Hu Jintao mystery tests the limits of China-watching

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China’s annual Communist Party congress was a highly choreographed affair, designed to cement Xi Jinping’s status as the unquestioned leader of China. But it was an apparently unscripted moment that really got people talking: The unexplained public ouster of former leader Hu Jintao.

The incident, which saw Hu escorted away from the stage as the party congress wound down on Saturday, has led to fervent speculation among both seasoned China watchers and moonlighters.

A new video released Monday by the Singaporean news agency CNA with a better view of the episode provided new clues, but no real answers, only adding to the confusion about what is going on at the upper levels of China’s leadership.

Whatever did happen, the incident offers further infuriating evidence of how opaque China’s leadership is. Before Xi assumed power as China’s leader in 2012, many assumed that he would be a quiet pragmatist like Hu, his predecessor as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the decade before.

But Xi instead ruthlessly cemented his own power in Beijing, abolishing presidential term limits and refusing to designate a successor. He led a crackdown in Xinjiang that the United Nations said could constitute crimes against humanity and stamped out dissent in Hong Kong.

Some fear his ultimate ambition is to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control — an act of imperial hubris that could spark a global war.

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In an unusual moment, former Chinese president Hu Jintao was unexpectedly escorted out of the closing ceremony of China's Communist Party meeting on Oct. 22. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty/Reuters)

To many, Hu’s exit from the party conference was a sign of Xi’s callousness. Geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer said Hu had been publicly humiliated because of “power politics,” while former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt suggested Xi had shown no sympathy as his predecessor was forced out.

But there were others who reasoned that Hu, grey-haired at 79, had appeared frail — and that some kind of health episode could have sparked his exit, as claimed by Chinese state media. Bill Bishop of the China-watching newsletter Sinocism noted Hu’s son, a senior party official himself, was in the audience. Purging one without the other seems unlikely, Bishop suggested.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, one unnamed Hong Kong-based China expert openly dismissed any talk of a “Stalinist purge” from Western voices and said it would make no sense for Hu or anyone else to challenge Xi on the final day of the party congress.

What binds all theories is a lack of firm information. Experts are basing their impressions on a handful of short clips from outside news outlets who were at the party. As my colleague Christian Shepherd wrote this weekend, Hu had been present at the opening ceremony and was expected to stay for the entire event. Instead, he was forced out mid-ceremony.

“Shortly after foreign journalists entered the hall, two suited men helped him to his feet and guided him off the stage, leaving an empty chair to the left of Xi,” Shepherd wrote, adding that video showed “a possibly hesitant or confused Hu first exchanging words with the men and Xi. After standing, he hovered in place, took a few slow steps, then stopped and turned to say something to Xi, who briefly nodded but remained looking ahead at the assembled delegates.”

Chinese state media has offered no clues as to what happened. It was only after widespread coverage of the incident that the Twitter account of Xinhua News Agency tweeted that Hu “was not feeling well during the session.”

The new footage from CNA adds one particularly notable detail: Hu had been looking at some documents on the table in front of him, before the current chairman of China’s legislature, Premier Li Zhanshu, took them from his hand. It’s at this point that Xi calls over the other men, who take Hu away.

But that document could be a vital clue or a red herring, depending on how you look at it. As one former Chinese insider told the BBC, why would the party put a document in front of Hu if he was not allowed to look at it? “No one can explain it until there is more evidence of what was inside the file, or what was being said at the scene,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of party newspaper the Study Times.

Under Xi, China wants absolute security. It’s making the world nervous.

Even if the speculation is off, the symbolism is powerful. In the past, it was widely expected that former leaders would continue to hold sway even after they had left office. The Post’s William Wan reported from Beijing in 2012 that many expected Hu to exert influence over Xi through patronage and networks.

“Hu is trying to do with his successor what [former leader Jiang Zemin] did to Hu and what even earlier Deng Xiaoping did to Jiang,” an editor of a party publication told The Post. “Each generation tries to hold sway over the next.”

Now, it looks clear that tradition has been broken. Hu’s ouster on Saturday came as Xi’s vision for the future was rubber-stamped by the 2,300 delegates at the 20th National Congress, with himself as leader for at least another five years. The era of two-term leaders appears to be over in China.

Meanwhile, China’s once-powerful faction linked to the Communist Youth League — which includes both Hu and Li — was effectively cut out of power. Li, once considered a potential leader and a protege of Hu’s, was ousted from not only the premiership but the powerful seven-person Politburo Standing Committee.

Reading the tea leaves is perhaps harder than ever in China. Xi has increased the pressure on Chinese civilians to fall in line, crushing not just dissent but reasoned debate. Outsiders have few resources to understand the country. Western journalists are severely limited in what they can do in the country, while public data is delayed.

Even mighty Western spy agencies have a hard time understanding what is going on in the country, as the inconclusive U.S.-led push to understand the origins of covid-19 has shown. Ironically, the massive crackdown on CIA informants that crippled U.S. operations in the country began in 2010 — the last days of Hu’s China.

In many ways, it’s similar to the problems faced by Russia-watchers during the Soviet Union. With little outside information, Kremlinology were forced to create “absolute certainties on the basis of cloudy figures swirling in [their] crystal balls,” in the words of late historian Robert Conquest. And yet most missed the coming collapse of Russian Communism during the 1980s.

Pekingologists risk a similar miscalculation when looking at Hu’s fate. “In the end, how you interpret that moment depends partly on how you interpret China’s political system,” Rory Truex, an expert on Chinese politics at Princeton, wrote for the Atlantic this week.

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