On Saturday, October 22, Xi Jinping’s predecessor Hu Jintao was unceremoniously escorted out of the closing of the 20th Party Congress in front of the domestic and international press. Hu’s highly unusual exit, a major departure from the strict political choreography characteristic of Party Congresses past, left observers across the world questioning what, exactly, had happened. In an English-language tweet, official state news agency Xinhua claimed: “When he [Hu Jintao] was not feeling well during the session, his staff, for his health, accompanied him to a room next to the meeting venue for a rest. Now, he is much better.” There was no accompanying Chinese-language report and no other Chinese outlets ran pieces on Hu’s removal. China Central Television, the state-run broadcaster, included a clip of Hu attending the Party Congress in an evening broadcast but did not mention his exit. CDT has re-published a video, in Chinese, from Singapore’s CNA (Channel NewsAsia) showing the circumstances of his exit:
There was almost no direct discussion of Hu’s removal from the Party Congress on Chinese social media due to stringent censorship. Even oblique commentaries were censored. In the aftermath of the incident, a few WeChat public accounts shared a 2016 profile of Hu’s life in retirement, originally published in the magazine Party History World (Dangshi Tiandi 《党史天地》), which was run by the Party History Research Office of the Hubei Chinese Communist Party Provincial Committee at that time. Censors deleted the essay in at least four cases. The essay, a standard hagiographic account of Hu’s retirement, depicts him practicing calligraphy and singing folk songs—content with life outside the arena. Yet snippets of the otherwise staid essay touch on sensitive subjects. Three sections of the essay, translated in part below, may be particularly sensitive. The first refers to an incident in which Hu stooped to pick up a Chinese flag that was used as a floor marker for a G20 photoshoot in 2012:
That simple detail of picking up the flag elicited an outpouring of emotion. As one impassioned netizen from Quanzhou, Fujian, wrote: “This small gesture of Chairman Hu’s springs from his intrinsic love of the motherland. I salute you, dearest Chairman Hu.” A netizen from Liaocheng, Shandong, described his emotional state upon seeing the photograph: “In that instant, I felt a lump in my throat. I mean, at the time, he was nearly a septuagenarian! China’s pilot at the helm!”
[…] On the morning of April 14, the day before the 25th anniversary of former CCP leader Hu Yaobang’s passing, Hu Jintao traveled to Hu Yaobang’s former residence in Zhonghe Township, Liuyang, Hunan. He spent an hour there, during which time he paid his respects by bowing down before a statue of Hu Yaobang.
[…] People who have met with Hu Jintao in his retirement reveal that he often self-deprecatingly refers to himself as “just a lowly citizen,” and thoroughly enjoys the relaxed life of an elderly retiree. [Chinese]
First, in describing the public reaction to Hu’s apparent devotion to the flag, the essay quotes an anonymous man from Shandong who describes Hu as “China’s pilot at the helm” (Zhongguo zhangdouren 中国掌舵人). The phrase is a contentious one that invokes China’s Maoist past, and has more recently been applied to Xi Jinping by state media.
Second, the essay describes Hu Jintao paying obeisance to a statue of the late Hu Yaobang (no relation), a former top leader of the Chinese Communist Party until his removal from office in 1987. Hu Yaobang’s death in April 1989 catalyzed the student movement that would later be violently suppressed on June 4th. Students used Hu’s death as an opportunity to advance their demands for transparency, the release of political prisoners, and freedom of the press. Hu Yaobang is not remembered particularly fondly in today’s official Party historiography. Although Xi did give a laudatory address about Hu’s life and work on the 100th anniversary of his birth, he was not named during a moment of silence in remembrance of past Party leaders during the commencement of the 20th Party Congress, even though previously purged Party leaders, like Liu Shaoqi, and Hu Yaobang’s contemporaries, like Chen Yun, were commemorated.
Third, the essay notes Hu Jintao’s post-retirement penchant for referring to himself as a “lowly person” (caomin, 草民). That folksy self-deprecation could be construed differently in light of the events at the 20th Party Congress, as it was originally used by those who did not hold office to describe themselves to the emperor. (Hu holds no official office and Xi Jinping has often been compared to the emperors of China’s dynastic past.) The phrase has also been associated with the sarcastic descriptor “fart people,” a reference to ordinary Chinese citizens’ lack of voting rights or political power.
A number of other terms related to Hu’s removal and Xi’s burgeoning power were censored online. Weibo limited search results for the terms “hustled away” (jiazou 架走) and “left the meeting” (lixi 离席) to verified government accounts. Search results for the terms on Zhihu and Douyin were also limited, indicating they were considered sensitive words on those platforms as well. Weibo also restricted search results for terms related to China’s imperial past. Searches for “emperor” (huangshang 皇上), “ascend the throne” (dengji 登基), and “abdicate” (tuiwei 退位) also only returned results from verified government accounts. After the Politburo Standing Committee was revealed on October 23, Weibo began censoring the term “we’re screwed” (wandan 完蛋), after netizens posted it alongside commentary on “runology.” The hashtag #We’reScrewed was blocked “in accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies” and search results for the stand-alone term were, as in the cases detailed above, limited to verified government accounts. The censorship of words related to Xi also snagged a few entirely innocuous posts unrelated to politics. One Weibo user shared a screenshot showing that Weibo was reviewing their post after they had captioned their video: “Feel the awesome power of Typhoon Nanmadol in three dimensions!” The constituent characters could be misread to demand Xi “step down,” which is what triggered the Weibo review.
The mass censorship of public commentary on Hu’s removal from the Party Congress’ closing ceremony does not necessarily indicate that it was nefarious or part of a purge. Commentary on top leaders is routinely subject to strict censorship, with past leaders sometimes even struggling to publish their own work: ex-premier Wen Jiabao’s essay in memoriam of his mother was censored in 2021 after it was published to WeChat. The reason for Hu Jintao’s removal remains a mystery.