Xi Jinping’s predecessor was unceremoniously escorted out of China’s party congress. Then searches on his name were censored

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Former Chinese leader Hu Jintao was escorted off stage during the closing session of a major Communist Party congress, where the 79-year-old had been prominently seated next to President Xi Jinping.  

Hu was helped out of his seat about halfway through proceedings in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Saturday, in a dramatic moment both captured on camera and witnessed by more than 2,000 people present.

The incident saw Xi turning toward Hu as he prepared to leave. Li Zhanshu, chair of the national legislature’s Standing Committee — who was sitting on Hu’s other side — tried to physically assist the former leader, until party secretariat chief Wang Huning gestured for him to stand down. 

Hu, who turns 80 in December, has looked increasingly frail in recent public appearances and seemed confused as he was led off stage. He stopped briefly to exchange some words with Xi, who nodded in response, and tapped outgoing Premier Li Keqiang on the back. 

The official Xinhua News agency reported that Hu had “insisted” on attending the session even though he had been recuperating recently, according to its official Twitter account. His staff accompanied him to a separate room to rest after he felt unwell during the session and Hu is “much better” now, Xinhua said.

On China’s Twitter-like Weibo, the incident appeared to have been censored, with searches for Hu Jintao only returning posts published before the weekend on Saturday afternoon. While the platform’s top ten trending items were dominated by the congress, Hu’s early exit wasn’t among them.

Xi on Saturday moved closer to securing a precedent-defying third term in office by announcing a Central Committee featuring a host of his loyalists. That paves the way for him to consolidate control over the country’s most powerful positions when they are unveiled Sunday. 

The 200-member body was revealed shortly after the final session of the party congress and saw Xi cast aside retirement rules that have dictated who governs the world’s second-largest economy for the past three decades. Perhaps most notably, former Hu Jintao protégé, Li Keqiang, was absent from the body, even though he’s still a year away from retirement age. 

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said Hu’s unscripted departure was unlikely to represent a political statement.

“I think this is a health issue,” Wu said. “Hu is more of a lying-flat type, he doesn’t want much. I don’t think he’s expressing anger at Xi.”  

— With assistance by Xiao Zibang, Colum Murphy and Jacob Gu

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