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. [Continue reading…]