What the Hell Just Happened to Hu Jintao?

Xi Jinping’s predecessor was forcibly led away from the Party Congress.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) looks on as former President Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 22.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) looks on as former President Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 22.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) looks on as former President Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 22. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China’s 20th Party Congress concluded on Saturday with a rare and shocking piece of live drama. Hu Jintao, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from 2002 to 2012, was publicly escorted away from the Party Congress by staff, visibly confused and upset, just before the final votes of the session. Hu was seated in a prominent position next to current CCP leader Xi Jinping, and the incident was caught on camera; he appeared to ask Xi and Premier Li Keqiang a question, to which they both nodded, while Xi prevented him from taking some papers by placing his hand on them. Li Zhanshu, another prominent party leader, got up to aid Hu as he left but was tugged back down with a pull on his jacket by political theorist Wang Huning, seated next to him.

Hu was never as powerful as Xi is now; his time in power was still in the era of so-called collective leadership, and he had to contend with the formidable influence of his predecessor Jiang Zemin. During Hu’s tenure, corruption rose—and more dangerously for the party, public coverage of corruption rose, as did freedom of speech online and, to a limited extent, civil society groups and NGOs. That wasn’t out of any great commitment to liberalism on Hu’s part but because most party members were more occupied with making money than with enforcing the party line.

[For more analysis on China's 20th Party Congress, visit FP's special coverage site.]

China’s 20th Party Congress concluded on Saturday with a rare and shocking piece of live drama. Hu Jintao, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from 2002 to 2012, was publicly escorted away from the Party Congress by staff, visibly confused and upset, just before the final votes of the session. Hu was seated in a prominent position next to current CCP leader Xi Jinping, and the incident was caught on camera; he appeared to ask Xi and Premier Li Keqiang a question, to which they both nodded, while Xi prevented him from taking some papers by placing his hand on them. Li Zhanshu, another prominent party leader, got up to aid Hu as he left but was tugged back down with a pull on his jacket by political theorist Wang Huning, seated next to him.

Hu was never as powerful as Xi is now; his time in power was still in the era of so-called collective leadership, and he had to contend with the formidable influence of his predecessor Jiang Zemin. During Hu’s tenure, corruption rose—and more dangerously for the party, public coverage of corruption rose, as did freedom of speech online and, to a limited extent, civil society groups and NGOs. That wasn’t out of any great commitment to liberalism on Hu’s part but because most party members were more occupied with making money than with enforcing the party line.

[For more analysis on China’s 20th Party Congress, visit FP’s special coverage site.]

Since stepping down as CCP leader in 2012, when Hu was lauded by party media for—in a stark contrast to Xi—relinquishing power, he has been largely off the stage. Many of his former allies have been arrested in Xi’s purges, most notably his chief aide Ling Jihua in 2015. Hu was associated with a power network of former leaders, like himself, of the Communist Youth League; that faction appears to have been effectively destroyed.

So what just happened? Hu’s name appears on a list of general assembly members given by China’s state news agency Xinhua on Saturday, but no explanation has been given for the incident—and, unsurprisingly, any attempt to discuss it online is being heavily censored. Bear in mind that the Party Congress is an extremely tightly choreographed event where the actual politics happen weeks or months in advance. That means Hu’s unannounced and clumsy removal was either a cock-up—or a conspiracy.

The first possibility is that it was a health crisis. Hu has been visibly frail during the Party Congress. His hair has also gone fully gray—which in a past era would itself have been a sign that he was eschewing power entirely, since China’s leaders universally dyed their hair, but under Xi signs of gray have been allowed to creep in. But it’s hard to see what condition could cause both an urgent need to remove him with cameras rolling and his deep reluctance to go. And even in a party context where secrecy and caution are the norms, why would others not aid a frail former colleague?

One possibility is that there was an unexpected COVID-19 diagnosis of which he was unaware. But that would mean a PCR test was processed just at the wrong moment—coming up positive when the rapid tests administered to everyone who comes near the leadership failed to catch anything.

The second possibility is that information suddenly came up that made Xi—who would have had to personally approve any such move—afraid that Hu might abstain or even vote against him in the rounds of otherwise unanimous voting that finished off the Party Congress. That could have been a remark by Hu to his former colleagues backstage or perhaps even signs of dementia that caused a sudden panic that something might go wrong. That would make Hu’s confusion understandable.

But the third and most disturbing possibility is that it was planned, and we just witnessed Xi deliberately and publicly humiliate his predecessor—possibly as a precursor to wielding the tools of party discipline, followed by judicial punishment, against him. This would be an extraordinary move but one that rammed home the message of Xi’s absolute power—something reinforced by the rest of the Party Congress, which just solidified Xi as the “core” of the party in the (often modified and mostly symbolic) Chinese Constitution and where he has been front and center as he takes an unprecedented third term.

Bear in mind that Xi used extremely harsh language in his opening work report to describe the situation within the party when he took over, speaking of a “slide toward weak, hollow, and watered-down party leadership in practice,” though without mentioning Hu or others by name. (Hu’s contribution to Marxist theory, the Scientific Outlook on Development, also got a token mention in Xi’s speech.) Humiliating Hu in this fashion would also send a clear signal to the “retired elders,” the former high-level leaders who long remained a force within the party, that Xi’s power was unbound. In that case, Li Zhanshu’s gesture of offering assistance to Hu would have been one of instinctive—but dangerous—kindness toward a former colleague.

But it would also have been a largely unnecessary move, barring intrigues completely unknown to the outside world—whatever power Hu once possessed inside the party is long gone, given the destruction of the Youth League Faction and the ousting or arrest of his allies. It’s very hard to see Hu as a plausible threat to Xi, except in conjunction with other retired leaders.

And it would also have been a move of deep cruelty, done with a relish for the kind of bureaucratic theater that marks Leninist systems like China’s. Under this scenario, after all, Hu could simply have been detained or put under house arrest in private, with his health as an easy excuse. Even if he had to be humiliated, it could have been done in closed-door meetings, as Mao Zedong repeatedly did to leaders who had defied him. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the CCP’s own internal secret police, has been notoriously harsh under Xi, with a greater frequency of the use of torture. Xu Caihou, a high-ranking military official, was detained in 2014 in the middle of cancer treatment, and died the next year.

It’s very likely that we won’t find out exactly what happened for years. There may be an announcement about Hu’s health—or the incident may simply never be explained publicly. In the unlikely event Hu is actually formally detained by the CCDI, that will be a huge escalation—and lead, as it always does, to criminal charges and imprisonment.

Whatever happened to Hu, Xi’s power will become more obvious on Sunday. The initial list of Central Committee names—the roughly 200 people who will nominally decide the Standing Committee, the core of the leadership, in meetings Saturday and announce it Sunday—is missing Li Keqiang, the current premier and a protégé of Hu’s, and other relative economic reformers such as Wang Yang and Liu He. That means the Standing Committee is likely to be almost entirely close Xi allies.

Around 2013, China watchers began to joke about the “golden age of liberalism under Hu Jintao.” At the time, it seemed absurd that an era so politically conservative, even as civil society slowly and falteringly advanced, could be considered in that way. Over the next decade, it became far less of a joke. In relative terms, Hu’s era now seems ridiculously free and open—and now given a brutal finale.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.