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Mystery as former Chinese leader is escorted out of Communist Party Congress in front of world media

BEIJING — Former Chinese President Hu Jintao was led out of the closing ceremony of the country’s Communist Party Congress Saturday in a moment of unexpected drama during an otherwise highly choreographed event. 

The 79-year-old was sitting beside President Xi Jinping in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People when he was approached by a man in a suit and surgical mask who spoke to him and appeared to pull his right arm.

With Xi looking on, the man then place both hands under Hu’s armpits and attempted to lift him out of his seat. Xi appeared to talk to his predecessor before the man got between them and tried to lift him again.

Another man in a mask arrived, Hu eventually stood up and after appearing to attempt to get back to his seat before he was escorted away after exchanging a few words with Xi and placing a hand on the shoulder of Premier Li Keqiang, the nation’s No. 2 official.

Just before the incident Hu had been speaking with Li Zhanshu, the chairman of the standing committee, the top leadership team in China.

Li had his chair turned toward the former president to talk. As Hu was led away by the men, Li attempted to stand up, but was pulled back down by Wang Huning, another party leader. 

No explanation was given for the incident, which lasted several minutes and took place shortly after international media were let into the hall to report on the twice-a-decade event when new promotions and appointments are announced, and political strategy is decided for the next 5-year cycle. 

It came after the party approved amendments to its constitution aimed at cementing the core status of Xi and the guiding role of his political thought within the party, which has around 96 million members.

Among the amendments, the “Two Establishes” define Xi as the “core” leader of the party and his ideas as the guiding principles of China’s future development. The “Two Safeguards” assure Xi’s “core” status within the party and the party’s centralised authority over China.

The central committee will announce the new politburo Sunday, which typically consists of 25 people. A new standing committee will also be announced, the top leadership team of the party.

Premier Li Keqiang, a strong proponent of economic reforms, was among four of the seven members of the nation’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee who will not be reappointed in a leadership shuffle Sunday.

It is widely expected that Xi Jinping will hold onto his status as general secretary and head of China’s armed forces.

Given the cementing of his status as a “core leader”, he could also be named “party chairman,” a title previously bestowed only on Mao Zedong, who ruled the People’s Republic of China for 27 years after it was founded in 1949.

His third title, president, is not up for renewal until spring. 

Xi’s power appears undiminished by the events of a tumultuous year, including a sharp economic slowdown, frustration over his zero-Covid policy, and China’s increasing estrangement from the West, exacerbated by economic competition, tensions over the Taiwan strait, and differences over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In his closing remarks, president Xi said that the Chinese Communist Party, now in its 100th year, was still in its prime.

“The Communist Party of China is once again embarking on a new journey on which it will face new tests,” he added, according to the Associated Press.

The congress concluded by playing the socialist anthem, “The Internationale.”

Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing and Leila Sackur from London.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed.

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