(CNN) — It is a moment that for many observers has come to define leader Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on China: His visibly frail predecessor Hu Jintao is escorted out of a key Communist Party meeting during a five-year leadership reshuffle, apparently at Xi’s behest.
Images of two men escorting Hu Jintao, 79, from his seat to the exit went around the world as the National Party Congress drew to a close on Saturday, leading to days of speculation over whether Hu was a victim. of a deliberately public power game.
This week, those rumors have only grown—despite Chinese state media claiming on Twitter that Hu left for health reasons—and the intrigue is likely to be further heightened by the release of the images. they show the 90 seconds that preceded his sudden dismissal.
The footage, released by Singapore broadcaster CNA on Tuesday, shows a series of high-level exchanges between top party officials, in which Hu is repeatedly prevented from looking at official documents in front of him.
It shows Li Zhanshu, the party’s outgoing number three, who is sitting next to Hu at the head table on the stage, taking the documents from Hu’s hand and placing them under a red folder. As Hu picks up the documents, Li pushes them aside.
Xi, who is sitting across from Hu, glances over the exchanges and calls out to a senior aide, whom he speaks with briefly. Moments later, a second aide rushes over, receives an instruction from Xi, then speaks to a seemingly bewildered Hu.
According to images that circulated on Saturday, Hu – who seems reluctant to leave – is lifted from his chair, taken by the arm and escorted out.
None of the images, neither those published on Saturday nor those of this Tuesday, have been released in China. The incident has also not been reported in the Chinese-language media, nor has it been discussed on Chinese social media, where conversations around top leaders are highly restricted.
Late Saturday night, China’s official Xinhua News Agency tweeted in English that Hu “insisted on attending” the closing ceremony despite his poor health and was escorted out after feeling unwell. However, in China, where Twitter is blocked, the incident was not mentioned.
On Weibo, censors even restricted search results to vague keywords like “escorted” or “leaving the meeting,” in an apparent effort to prevent users from making veiled references to the incident, according to China censorship analyst Eric Liu. Digital Times.
Tuesday’s footage has fueled fervent speculation about the contents of the document and why Hu was not allowed to see it, and has left observers divided over what prompted his departure.
Some argue it was probably due to Hu’s poor health or mental state—after retiring in 2013, he has been seen in public looking increasingly frail. Others suggest it could be a deliberate power play by Xi to demonstrate his peerless authority.
Symbol of a new era
Like many unexplained episodes in the black box of elite Chinese politics, the real reason for Hu’s unexpected departure may never be known. But experts say the symbolism — intended or not — is hard to miss: Having eradicated any vestiges of influence from party elders or rival factions, Xi has ushered in a new era of one-man rule surrounded only by unconditionally loyal.
Under Hu, meanwhile, the many features that had defined his decade in power, during which he presided over a period of double-digit economic growth and comparative openness, have disappeared.
Hu also resigned from his party and military posts when he retired in 2012 after two terms in power, earning praise from Xi for “his broad mind and noble character.”
Although Hu was never as powerful as Xi is now—due in part to the model of collective leadership and the balanced influence of multiple factions and party elders, including his predecessor Jiang Zemin—he was associated with a faction linked to the League of Communist Youth, a once-powerful group whose influence has dwindled considerably under Xi.
Steve Tsang, director of the China SOAS Institute at the University of London, said the latest images suggest Hu’s dramatic departure was probably unplanned.
“For whatever reasons, Xi ordered Hu escorted out when he must have thought that Hu might not behave exactly as Xi would have wanted,” he said.
The new video has been interpreted by some as a sign of Hu’s alleged discontent with the outcome of the Congress, which saw Xi consolidate his power by stacking the new leadership team with his loyal allies and protégés.
Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, head of China’s top advisory body, have stepped down from the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, despite being a year under the unofficial retirement age of 68. Both Li and Wang are considered closer to Hu’s sphere of influence.
This Sunday, in an even more surprising revelation, Deputy Prime Minister Hu Chunhua, another protégé of the elder Hu (the two are not related), was excluded from the new 24-member Politburo. The political future of Hu Chunhua, who in his day was considered a rising star preparing for the pinnacle of power, has been diluted under Xi.
But Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, said a planned public purge at the close of congress was unlikely given the party’s emphasis on unity.
“The Chinese Communist Party prizes the image of unity and control, and more than ever during the Xi era,” Sung said.
If Xi had wanted to purge Hu to prevent the former leader from raising objections in public, he would have done so before the foreign press could enter the auditorium, Sung said.
“A high-profile purge of Hu at a critical juncture like the 20th Party Congress shows the presence of dissent, and the notion that Xi is at least ‘challengeable,'” he said. “Neither is good for Xi’s image of invincibility.”
Many observers were also struck by the apparent coldness of the other leaders on stage. Few showed concern for Hu, and many avoided looking in his direction.
“There is no empathy,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
In order to move up in the party, officials have learned to hide their emotions and personal characteristics, Wu said. “They are just trying to be like a machine in the party machine.”
On his way out, Hu patted the shoulder of his protégé, Premier Li, who nodded and turned briefly to watch him walk away. Beside Li, Wang sat up straight and stared straight ahead, seemingly frozen in motion.
Further down the edge of the stage, Hu Chunhua did not even cast a glance towards the party elder as he passed by. Instead of him, he stared straight ahead with a noticeable frown on his face and his arms crossed over his chest.
But even if the real reason for the elder Hu’s departure is never made clear, the incident has sent an unmistakable message about Xi’s stranglehold on power, analysts say.
Hu’s undignified exit showed that “Xi had reduced the once powerful faction of the (Communist) Youth League to insignificance,” Tsang told the University of London.
“With no successor in sight, and with the previous leader humiliated, Xi had projected to the party that … no one in the party should look down on another leader, past or future,” Tsang said.
“Now there is only one leader in China.”