China’s party congresses are usually carefully choreographed affairs where nothing is left to chance.
This was why on October 22, an unexpected if brief few minute-long pause in the proceedings caused a stir and set tongues wagging in Beijing.
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Just as reporters were ushered into the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the frail former leader Hu Jintao, 79, sitting next to his successor Xi Jinping, appeared to be escorted off the stage where leaders sat.
Mr. Hu, known to be in ill-health and requiring assistance even when he attended the October 16 opening of the congress and sat beside Mr. Xi then, appeared reluctant to leave, and somewhat disoriented. When an aide moved to assist Mr. Hu and held his arm, he appeared to pull his arm away. The aide then lifted him up off his seat, and as he left, he appeared to mistakenly take a white sheet of paper placed in front of Mr. Xi, which the current Chinese leader then moved away from him.
Mr. Hu exchanged brief words with both Mr. Xi and second-ranked leader Li Keqiang — once his protégé — before leaving the stage.
Both Mr. Li and fourth-ranked leader Wang Yang, another protégé of Mr. Hu, were surprisingly excluded from the new Central Committee announced on Saturday.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said Mr. Hu “was not feeling well during the session” so "his staff, for his health, accompanied him to a room next to the meeting venue for a rest”.
“Hu Jintao insisted on attending the closing session of the Party’s 20th National Congress, despite the fact that he has been taking time to recuperate recently,” a brief report said.
If some saw political machinations or a sudden purge behind Mr. Hu’s exit, the official media’s coverage didn’t seem to suggest so. The state broadcaster’s main evening news broadcast showed Mr. Hu participating in the morning session in a close-up shot right after Mr. Xi was shown and ahead of the other leaders, a status that would not be accorded to a purged politician.
If the consensus of most observers in Beijing was that Mr. Hu was likely unwell and appeared disoriented, there were some unanswered questions. For one, Mr. Hu appeared reluctant to leave. Also, his exit in the full glare of media that had just been ushered into the venue meant he was not present for the voting of the amendments to the Constitution, which he was involved in as a delegate to the previous congress in 2017. The amendments were passed unanimously in his absence.