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Analyzing Hu Jintao’s Early Exit From the 20th Party Congress Closing Ceremony

Hu almost certainly knew the result of the personnel reshuffle beforehand, and is unlikely to have suddenly found reason to be upset with Xi over the reshuffle.

◎ The following analysis was first published in the October 27, 2022 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.

On Oct. 24, Channel News Asia (CNA) released footage of what happened about a minute or so before former CCP general secretary Hu Jintao’s unexpected exit from the 20th Party Congress closing ceremony. According to CNA, the footage was captured soon after “local and foreign media were allowed to enter the auditorium to cover proceedings around 11:15 a.m. [Beijing time],” and shortly after PRC state media announced that “delegates had elected a new Central Committee and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.” After Hu left, delegates voted on other items on the 20th Party Congress agenda, including amendments to the Party constitution.

From CNA’s video, Hu was initially holding on to some papers, but National People’s Congress head Li Zhanshu (seated on Hu’s left) took them from his hand and placed them underneath a red folder that seemed identical to the one that all delegates had. Li was saying something to Hu while he shifted the papers under the folder, and Hu looked somewhat dazed. Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning, who was seated beside Li, also gestured and appeared to say something to Hu and Li.

Xi Jinping, who was seated on Hu’s right, noted the exchange between Hu and Li and appeared to signal for someone to come over. Kong Shaoxun, head of the CCP secretariat, approached Xi before leaving. Xi then looked over at Hu and Li, seemed like he wanted to say something but stopped himself, and continued looking on with an expression that suggested he was concerned or troubled.

Shortly afterward, a person who appeared to be a steward walked behind Hu’s chair and had some words with Xi, who gestured at the documents in front of him. What happened next was the scene of Hu showing reluctance about exiting before finally leaving with the steward and another official, as well as his documents, that was earlier released on Oct. 22.

1. CNA’s footage would appear to confirm a popular theory about the Hu Jintao incident circulating in Chinese-language China-watching circles. The “two lists” theory holds that Xi Jinping had deceived Hu about the CCP leadership reshuffle by providing him with a “false” list before voting took place at the closing ceremony of the 20th Party Congress, and Hu got upset when he finally saw the “real” list and the removal of his allies (Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua, etc.) from top posts. When Xi noted Hu’s “displeasure,” he had Hu taken away in case the latter decided to “challenge” him on the spot during the voting for other agenda items.

However, we believe that the “two lists” theory is highly flawed and runs counter to factional struggle logic and CCP operations. In expanding on what we had written in the Oct. 24, 2022 newsletter, there is an extremely low probability that Hu Jintao did not know the composition of the 20th Central Committee, as well as its Politburo and Standing Committee, before voting took place on Oct. 22. Based on our understanding of practices in elite CCP politics, the Party elites likely finalized personnel arrangements at Beidaihe in mid-August and before the 7th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in mid-October at the latest. This is affirmed by an Oct. 22 Xinhua report that revealed that the Politburo reviewed and approved the list of candidates for the 20th Central Committee and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on Sept. 29. This is also indirectly affirmed by the fact that name lists of the confirmed 20th Politburo Standing Committee were already circulating on Chinese social media after the 7th Plenum while The Wall Street Journal published an article on Oct. 17 citing “people close to Party leaders” that correctly identified six out of seven of the Politburo Standing Committee. Given the leaks and Xinhua’s reporting, it is virtually impossible that Hu had absolutely no idea what the final outcome of the 20th Party Congress personnel reshuffle was until Oct. 22.

Proponents of the “two lists” theory are also hard-pressed to explain how Xi could have hidden the “real” list from Hu right up till the closing ceremony of the 20th Party Congress. The only way that Xi could have done so is by placing Hu under extremely strict control from Beidaihe until Oct. 22, denying the latter any chance to communicate with fellow CCP elites or any access to information from the outside world. But news (if only rumors) that Hu was being placed under de facto house arrest would have spread early and quickly if this were indeed the case, especially seeing how the development would benefit the “anti-Xi coalition” and their efforts to shape the external information environment against Xi. The idea of Hu being placed under control by Xi also runs counter to displays of friendliness between the two during the opening ceremony of the 20th Party Congress.

Proponents of the “two lists” theory could argue that Xi hid the “real” list from everyone until the closing ceremony of the 20th Party Congress. However, no one apart from Hu looked like they wanted to “challenge” Xi that day, not even Jiang faction number two Zeng Qinghong or the 105-year-old Song Ping. It makes no sense why officials with greater “quan wei” (authority and prestige) than Hu and legitimate reasons to “challenge” Xi over personnel arrangements did nothing after discovering that they had been “deceived” over the “two lists,” but the usually meek Hu suddenly found the courage within him to “stand up” to Xi. Arguments that only Hu could “challenge” Xi because he was more “upright” or “cleaner” also do not hold water in considering that no CCP official is truly “clean” and Xi could easily find dirt on Hu if he wanted to.

Finally, proponents of the “two lists” theory must account for why Xi willingly risked a massive scandal at the 20th Party Congress by “hiding” the “real” list from Hu until the last minute. If Xi’s true goal was sidelining Hu all along, he could have done so in multiple ways that preserve the image of the CCP and himself while intimidating the Party elite at the same time. Xi definitely did not need to make what seemed like a spur-of-the-moment decision to have Hu removed in a public setting, a move that damages his and the CCP’s reputation even more and harms their collective interests. Moreover, Xi did not need to dig a hole for himself by calling on the Party to adhere to Hu’s political theory (“scientific outlook on development”) alongside those of the other leaders in his 20th Party Congress work report during the opening ceremony, only to publicly “humiliate” and “oust” the latter during the closing ceremony.

2. The theory that Hu Jintao was displeased by something he saw in the documents handed out to delegates during the closing ceremony seems plausible. But it is hard to imagine what could have unsettled him.

As we explained in the above point, Hu almost certainly knew the result of the personnel reshuffle beforehand, and is unlikely to have suddenly found reason to be upset with Xi over the reshuffle.

Another document that Hu could possibly be unhappy about is the amendments to the Party constitution. However, Hu also knew well beforehand what those amendments were because they were based on Xi’s “historical resolution,” political slogans, and revised histories. It is very unlikely that Hu suddenly found something in the amendments that he objected to.

There is a possibility that Hu had a problem with documents in the red folder that were not the personnel reshuffle list and the amendments to the constitution. However, it is unclear what else might have been in those documents that could have troubled Hu but not the other Party elites and elders attending the closing ceremony, who did not act unusually during the event.

3. From the publicly available information available at the time of writing, we believe that our original hypothesis is still the more plausible reason why Hu Jintao exited the closing ceremony early. To reiterate, we are skeptical that Hu’s exit had anything to do with factional struggle and that he was likely suffering from poor health of some sort.

The CNA footage limits the possible ailments that Hu could have been suffering from, if he was indeed in poor health. Hu was escorted out after appearing to have problems with the documents and on what seemed to be Xi’s real-time directions. Age-related mental problems like senility or Alzheimer’s disease could explain why Hu suddenly found trouble with the documents, looked somewhat dazed throughout the incident, and was reluctant to leave the premises. If Hu has age-related mental problems that affect his memory, then the “two lists” theory could actually be possible, but just not in the manner that pundits believe.

4. The Jiang faction could find itself in hot water in the near future regardless of whether factional struggle was a factor in the Hu Jintao incident.

If Hu’s early exit was indeed the result of factional struggle, then this suggests that Xi has decided to eliminate all opposition and potential opposition to his rule to better navigate the CCP regime through “great challenges unseen in a century.” Having set the precedent of “removing” a predecessor, Xi will have no qualms about going after Jiang Zemin next.

In the scenario where Hu’s exit was not related to factional struggle (our hypothesis), Xi could still suspect the Jiang faction of having a hand in shaping public perception of the incident and move to hold his chief rivals accountable. For one, the Xi leadership would want to shift the public’s attention away from a perceived split in the Xi-Hu alliance (including the “Xi is on the decline, Li [Keqiang] is on the rise” theory) and refocus the narrative on the “Xi-Jiang” struggle, which curiously dropped out of mainstream discussions in the months leading up to the 20th Party Congress and after. In going after the Jiang faction, Xi could move to “scrape poison from bone” in “self-revolution” and purge the remaining Jiang faction officials and elders. Xi would also have less reservations about going after Jiang Zemin himself seeing how the public is now no longer shocked by the idea that Xi could openly move against a predecessor.

5. Developments in the near future will determine what the Hu Jintao incident at the 20th Party Congress really was about.

If the incident was indeed a manifestation of factional struggle between Xi and Hu as many observers seem to believe, then Xi would next mop up Hu’s allies and sideline Hu’s son Hu Haifeng. Xi would also methodically remove official references to Hu, including his “scientific outlook on development.”

If the incident was not factional struggle, then Hu and his allies will continue to make public appearances and will not come to harm. Meanwhile, Xi can be expected to step up his struggle against the Jiang faction.

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