China’s 20th Communist Party Congress last week concluded with a “rare and shocking” spectacle, says James Palmer in Foreign Policy. Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping’s predecessor as party chief and Chinese leader, was escorted from the public meeting hall just before the final votes. He looked “confused and upset”, and it’s unclear what his “unannounced and clumsy removal” was about. One theory, backed up by Chinese state media, is that the “visibly frail” 79-year-old had a health crisis – though it’s hard to see what kind, given his clear reluctance to leave the room. Another is that Xi suddenly became afraid Hu would abstain or vote against him.
The third, “most disturbing” possibility is that the spectacle was planned, as a way for Xi to “deliberately and publicly humiliate his predecessor” and underline his own unchallenged authority. Hu led China from 2002 to 2012 during a period of collective leadership and relative liberalism, departing after two terms according to precedent. Xi, however, has ruthlessly consolidated “absolute power”, and used the Party Congress to hand himself a third term as CCP leader. If Hu’s removal was indeed a show of authority, it was one of “deep cruelty”: he represented no threat to Xi, and could have been “detained or put under house arrest in private”. We probably won’t discover the truth of the matter for years. Nevertheless, the incident gives the relative freedom of the Hu years a “brutal finale”.