Former Chinese President Hu Jintao, Purged on Video, Is Still Missing

Hu Jintao has been exiled
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The fate of former Chinese leader Hu Jintao, who was unexpectedly dragged out of the tightly controlled National Party Congress two weeks ago as his successor Xi Jinping was crowned dictator-for-life, remains uncertain.

Hu, who is 79 and in poor health, has not been seen in public since he was manhandled by Xi’s goons.

The UK Guardian pored over suppressed footage of Hu’s October 22 ejection and saw further evidence that his forceful invitation to leave the premises was the last-minute result of “discreet, high-level maneuvering,” rather than a planned gesture of disrespect to cap off a “carefully choreographed week of political theater.”

The footage – shot by Channel News Asia, but withheld for two days while Chinese censors scrubbed video of the event from social media, along with mentions of Hu’s name, and even mentions of his son’s name – showed Communist officials buzzing in their seats after one of their number plucked a document from Hu’s hand, shoved it into a folder to keep it away from the elderly former leader, and finally grabbed the folder away from Hu entirely.

The younger Communist official, Li Zhanshu, apparently thought Hu was about to cause a scene, possibly brandishing the mysterious document while he criticized Xi or the Party. Li can be seen trying to talk Hu out of whatever he planned on doing, without success.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) looks on as former President Hu Jintao is helped to leave early from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, at The Great Hall of People on October 22, 2022 in Beijing, China's Communist Party Congress is concluding today with incumbent President Xi Jinping expected to seal a third term in power. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) looks on as former President Hu Jintao is helped to leave early from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, at The Great Hall of People on October 22, 2022 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Xi, who was at the podium, noticed this bit of totalitarian slapstick and shot Hu the kind of side-eye that tends to summon goon squads in brutal dictatorships. Goons promptly appeared, held a furious whispered conversation with Hu and Li, and then seemingly asked Xi what he wanted them to do. The rest of the incident was captured in the footage seen by the public, including a weird moment when Hu unsuccessfully attempted to grab some papers away from Xi as he was led away.

Hu has not been seen by the public since he was tossed out of the National Party Congress. The Spectator argued on Thursday his disappearance was not necessarily ominous, given his advanced age, health problems, and retirement from office.

The Spectator argued that Xi had no need to make an example out of Hu, since his control of the Chinese Communist Party is absolute, so the more likely explanation is that aging Hu lost control of himself due to “a debilitating illness of old age” and had to be ushered out before he caused a scene:

Senility also seems more consistent with the pictures of the incident. His neighbor Li Zhanshu looked like he was dealing with a child, as though saying that there is no need to worry about the papers in the folder. Hu looks confused rather than angry. Weakly he tries to take Xi’s papers, which he would surely never have done in public if his wits were whole. He appears not as a sharp proponent of political infighting, but rather a candidate for the Xiang Shan Home for the Bewildered.

This was not to say that Hu’s ejection from the Party Congress spoke well of the Chinese regime, even if he was dealing with a bout of senility:

What strikes the mind most about these scenes, whatever their explanation, was the reaction of the others on the platform, some of whom owed their rise to Hu. It was brutal. It lacked compassion. No one moved to comfort a confused old man. All were afraid to show humanity. They revealed the values and nature of the regime in all its coldness.

Nikkei Asia, on the other hand, suggested Hu’s removal was the conclusion of a “quiet resistance” to Xi’s remaking of the Politburo in his image, led by Communist Party elders who were insulted by Xi’s flunkies ordering them not to criticize any of his choices for Party leadership positions. 

Even though Hu got the boot, Nikkei Asia saw evidence the “quiet resistance” was partially successful because two amendments hotly desired by Xi and his coterie did not make it into the Party constitution:

The culmination of the resistance surfaced on Oct. 26, four days after the national congress ended. That day, the full text of the party’s revised constitution adopted at the quinquennial event was made public.

The amendment does not include a phrase about “establishing” Xi’s core position in the party nor one about “establishing” the guiding role of Xi’s eponymous ideology.

This stood in contrast to the heavy spotlight on what Beijing is calling the “two establishes” during the congress. Many officials had emphasized the significance of establishing the two aspects. A banner calling for “two establishments” was displayed on the streets of Beijing. Even a resolution adopted during the national congress includes it. But at the end of the day, the “establish” clauses failed to make their way into the constitution.

Furthermore, the Party constitution refrained from making a ceremonial concession to Xi’s importance by failing to rebrand his ideology, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as simply “Xi Jinping Thought” – a flourish that would have put him on par with Chinese Communist Party founder Mao Zedong.

A rumored ceremonial title for Xi of “People’s Leader,” which would have paved the way for him to claim Mao’s ultimate title of “Party Chairman,” also failed to make the cut. Xi’s unprecedented third term will keep him in power until he is the same age as Hu Jintao today, and there is nothing stopping him from claiming another term after that if he wants, but naming him “Party Chairman” would literally and officially make him dictator-for-life, as Mao was.

According to Nikkei Asia, Xi badly wanted all of these ceremonial titles and honors, but the rebellious Party elders lined up behind Hu stopped him, grounding their opposition in a prohibition against “any form of personality cult” written into the Communist charter by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982.

File/Jane Lu, left, director of the Confucious Institute in Chicago, gives a tour of the Institute classroom to Chinese President Hu Jintao, Friday, Jan. 21, 2011, at Walter Payton College Preparatory School, in Chicago, as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley looks on. (AP Photo/Chris Walker, Pool)

File/President Jiang Zemin (C) together with the Chinese leadership, (L-R) Vice Premier Li Lanqing, Vice President Hu Jintao, Premier Zhu Rongji, Jiang, Parliament Chairman Li Peng, standing committee members Li Ruihuan and Wei Jiangxing during the Macau handover gala in Beijing 20 December 1999. (GOH CHAI HIN/AFP via Getty Images)

This leads to a theory of Hu’s expulsion that states the old man was dragged out of the Party Congress because he was planning to rise and denounce Xi for sailing too close to the “personality cult” line – and if Hu had done so, the many Party elders who revere Deng and his legacy might have risen one after the other to follow suit, wrecking Xi’s stage-managed coronation. 

If that is what Li Zhanshu was frantically trying to talk Hu out of doing on October 22, then Xi might have decided to keep the old man refrigerated for a while as a warning to the other elders. Nikkei Asia observed that some other prominent Chinese Communist leaders, including the even older but still influential former president Jiang Zemin, have set aside longstanding quarrels with Hu to unite against Xi’s assault on the Deng legacy. 

The quiet revolt might have spent all of its strength keeping Xi’s “two establishes” and momentous new titles out of the Party constitution, and Deng’s proteges were largely kicked out of power at the National Party Congress, but Xi might feel better if the old guard does not grow any more united in its opposition to Xi Jinping Thought – especially not with the Chinese economy teetering on the edge of a meltdown thanks to Xi’s coronavirus obsessions.


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