Former Chinese leader Hu Jintao unexpectedly led out of room as Communist Party Congress comes to a close

Hong Kong

Former Chinese top leader Hu Jintao was unexpectedly led out of the closing ceremony of a major meeting of China’s ruling Communist Party Saturday, in a moment of drama during what is typically a highly choreographed event.

Hu, 79, was seated in a prominent position at the front table in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, directly next to his successor, current leader Xi Jinping, when he was approached by a staff member, video of the meeting shows.

While seated, Hu appeared to talk briefly with the male staff member, while Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu, who was seated to his other side, had his hand on the chair behind Hu’s back.

Hu then appeared to rise after being lifted up by the staff member, who’d taken the former leader by the arm, while Kong Shaoxun, deputy director of the General Office of the Communist Party and head of its secretariat came over. Hu spoke with the two men briefly and initially appeared reluctant to leave.

He was then escorted by the two men from his seat, with the staff member holding his arm, as other party members seated behind the main table looked on. The circumstances surrounding Hu’s exit are not clear.

On his way out, Hu was seen to pause and appeared to say something to Xi and then patted Premier Li Keqiang on the shoulder. Both Xi and Li appeared to nod. It was not clear what Xi said in reply.

At one point, while Hu was still seated, Xi appeared to place his hand over a document that Hu was attempting to reach for preventing him from doing so.

In another moment, after Hu was standing and discussing with the two men before making his exit, Li Zhanshu appeared to try and rise from his seat, but was directed back down by a tug on his suit jacket by fellow Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning, seated next to him.

Hu, who retired in 2013, has been seen in increasingly frail health in public in recent years. CNN was censored on air in China when reporting on Hu’s exit from the meeting Saturday.

Due to the opacity of Chinese elite politics, the party is unlikely to offer a public explanation on Hu’s sudden exit. The dramatic moment is not reported anywhere in Chinese media, or discussed on Chinese social media. But it has set off a firestorm of speculation overseas.

Hu’s departure came after the Congress’s more than 2,000 delegates had rubber-stamped the new members of the party’s elite Central Committee during a private session, and before delegates were called on to endorse the party’s work report during a session open to journalists.

The newly announced 205-member Central Committee did not include Li Keqiang and fellow Standing Committee member Wang Yang, who are both considered Hu’s proteges. This means neither will retain their seats in the Standing Committee, the party’s top-decision making body, though both are 67, one year short of the unofficial retirement age. Xi, who is 69, is included in the list of new Central Committee members.

The line-up of the Standing Committee will be revealed Sunday, one day after the close of the Congress. Xi, who is widely seen to have cemented power by eliminating rivals and dampening the lingering influence of party elders, is expected to be re-confirmed as party chief in a norm-breaking move and surround himself with allies.