Former leader removed from China's party congress as Xi is set to clinch reelection

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By Euronews  with AP
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao, center, is helped during the closing ceremony of the 20th National Congress of China's ruling Communist Party on Saturday, 22 October 2022
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao, center, is helped during the closing ceremony of the 20th National Congress of China's ruling Communist Party on Saturday, 22 October 2022   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Andy Wong   -  

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao — Xi Jinping's predecessor as party leader — was helped off the stage shortly after foreign media came in, sparking speculation about his health.

Hu, 79, looked slightly disoriented as two assistants helped him stand but spoke briefly with Xi, whom he had been sitting next to in the front row. There was no official comment. 

Jiang Zemin, 96, who was president before Hu, did not appear at this congress.

Sometimes referred to as Supreme or Paramount Leader, Xi is expected to be confirmed in what would be a historic third term in office.

The party congress also approved an amendment to the party constitution Saturday that could further enhance Xi's stature as the country's leader — and some are already labelling him as the most powerful man in China since Mao Zedong.

Zedong founded the communist state in 1949 and led the country for a quarter-century.

The text of the amendment was not immediately released, but before its approval, an announcer read out the reasoning behind it, repeatedly mentioning Xi and his accomplishments in strengthening the military and the economy and reinforcing the party's authority.

Prime minister out of country's most-powerful committee

Xi has also orchestrated a leadership shuffle.

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, the nation's No. 2 official and a chief proponent of economic reforms, is among four of the seven members of the nation's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee who will not be reappointed.

The four were not on the list of the ruling Communist Party's new 205-member Central Committee that was approved Saturday at the closing session of a weeklong party congress that set the leadership and agenda for the next five years.

Only Central Committee members can serve on the Standing Committee.

The three other Standing Committee members who were dropped were Shanghai party chief Han Zheng, party advisory body head Wang Yang, and Li Zhanshu, a longtime Xi ally and the head of the largely ceremonial National People's Congress.

Xi, in brief closing remarks, said the revision "sets out clear requirements for upholding and strengthening the party's overall leadership."

At the previous congress in 2017, the party elevated Xi's status by enshrining his ideas — known as "Xi Jinping Thought" — in its charter.

'There is only one voice'

The roughly 2,000 delegates to the party congress — wearing blue surgical masks under China's strict zero-COVID policy — met in the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.

Police were stationed along major roads, with bright red-clad neighbourhood watch workers at regular intervals in between to keep an eye out for any potential disruptions.

An individual caught authorities by surprise last week by unfurling banners from an overpass in Beijing that called for Xi's removal and attacked his government's tough pandemic restrictions.

A report read by Xi at the opening session of the congress a week ago showed a determination to stay on the current path in the face of domestic and international challenges.

An expected third five-year term as party leader would break an unofficial two-term limit that was instituted to try to prevent the excesses of Mao's one-person rule, notably the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, under which Xi suffered as a youth.

Xi has put loyalists in key positions and taken personal charge of policy working groups. 

In contrast, factions within the party discussed ideas internally under his two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

"Right now, you don't really see a lot of internal party debates about these different policies, and there is only one voice there," he said.