‘The Unseating Incident’ — a letter to Xi Jinping, my fellow Tsinghua alumnus, about our elder, Hu Jintao

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Appendix XXI


We previously noted that:

There were media reports that, on 16 October 2022, the first day of the Twentieth Congress of China’s Communist Party, [Xi Jinping’s predecessor, former Party General Secretary] Hu Jintao had failed to applaud Xi Jinping’s two-hour long report to the convocation as custom would usually demand. There was immediate speculation as to whether this was a gesture of disapproval, a sign of disrespect or merely a reflection of Hu’s waning health.

On 22 October, the final day of the congress, further conjecture regarding the relationship between the former and regnant Party General Secretaries was sparked by the fact that Hu Jintao was escorted out of the meeting. Was it ill health? Or, as many guessed, Hu Jintao was urged/ hijacked after attempting to raise a voice of protest. One popular story postulated that Hu had not been informed in advance that none of the leading comrades formerly associated with him as part of the so-called ‘China Youth League faction’ would be elected to the new leading presidium of the Party’s Central Committee. Another popular account holds that Hu was ‘triggered’ by the unexpected absence of the name of his son, Hu Haifeng, on the list of new Central Committee members.

It is presumed that Hu only became aware of this when he caught sight of the name lists for the new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee. Before he could make a peep, Hu was bundled out of the Great Hall of the People.

Speculation about the incident both in- and outside China was rife. In Exit Stage Right, an appendix to our series Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, we offered the views of Wu Guoguang, a seasoned political analyst and historian, as well as an observation made by Jörg Wuttke, President of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China. Here we hear from Yan Huai 閻淮.

Yan Huai worked under the Party elder Chen Yun, one of the original architects of China’s economic reforms and opening up. As a cadre in the sensitive Central Organisation Department of the Party in the 1980s he played a significant role in identifying, training and placing promising successors to the Party’s enterprise. In that capacity he worked both with Hu Jintao, his senior, and was involved in the career trajectory of Xi Jinping. (For details, see Yan’s memoir, Working in and Getting Out of the Central Organisation Department — the other life of a Second Generation Idealist and Member of the Party Gentry, with introductions by Li Rui and Yang Jisheng, Hong Kong: Mirror Publishers, 2017.)

Readers of China Heritage last encountered Yan Huai in May 2019, when we published his record of the 28 April 2019 protest by Tsinghua University alumni centered at the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele on the campus. (See Rashomon & Growing Pains at Tsinghua University.) Prior to that,  Yan had been one of the organisers of the 31 March petition that appealed to Tsinghua to reinstate Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, an outspoken academic at the university who had been put under investigation. Yan’s essay published by China Heritage on 4 May was a thoughtful analysis by a writer familiar both with the inner workings of the Communist party-state and the tragic history of protest in China both past and present. (See Anniversaries New & Old in 2019 — Remembering 5.4, Accounting for 4.28China Heritage, 4 May 2019; and, Crowdfunding a Scholar Becalmed, China Heritage, 4 September 2020.)


We have frequently used the old Soviet-era term ‘former person’ when referring to Xu Zhangrun and his precarious state in Beijing. Having not been similarly reduced to the status of a non-person, Yan Huai is in effect an 遺民 yí mín, that is someone who has survived into a new era while cleaving to the loyalties, hopes and ideals of a previous regime. Such ‘remnant people’ were a feature of China’s dynastic history; they have also been a haunting presence, generation after generation, throughout modern Chinese political life. Yan is a ‘remnant’ of the 1980s, just as Xu Zhangrun, despite his non-person status, is a remnant of the late-Reform era (c.2003-2012).

We read Yan Huai’s measured and reasonable appeal to Xi Jinping as if listening to the dying strains of music from another China. In that alternate, and parallel, reality readers can readily distinguish between 明嘲 míng cháo (explicit sarcasm) and 暗諷 àn fěng (furtive mockery).

For having the temerity to express concern for Hu Jintao, even if it was in the mild manner of the following open letter, Yan Huai was questioned by state security functionaries — commonly known as 狗腿子 gǒutuǐzi, ‘henchmen of the officials’ — and surveillance cameras were installed at his home.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
26 October 2022


Related Material:

Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping at a session of the National People’s Congress, March 2013


A Letter to Xi Jinping, my Junior Classmate
Regarding the Health and Safety of our Elder, Hu Jintao

Yan Huai, a fellow Tsinghua University alumnus


I embarked upon my studies at Tsinghua University in 1964. When I worked at the Party’s Central Organisation Department during the 1980s, I had first-hand and in-depth contact both with Hu Jintao, an older Tsinghua alum as well as with you, my younger Tsinghua brother. I have followed both of your careers and have subsequently noted your respective advancement as well as your achievements.

A myriad of thoughts filled my mind when I watched the proceedings of the closing ceremony of the Twentieth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party [on Saturday 22 October 2022]. You exuded undeniable confidence. It was in marked contrast to the gray fragility of our elder and everyone was dumbfounded when our elder was escorted off the stage that day.

The international media and the Chinese Internet immediately exploded with questions and speculation about what happened was rife. The truth could immediately dispel all of the rumours. That is why I am writing you now, to beseech you, as a Party General Secretary who has just embarked upon his third consecutive term in office, to make the facts about the incident public as soon as possible. To do so will immediately put an end to all of the confusion.

If our elder, Hu Jintao, had to take his leave due to ill health, I plead for you as a matter of urgency to release some details of his condition, even if they are cursory. I appreciate the fact that, in normal circumstances, the health of a leader in a socialist country is a matter of the utmost secrecy. However, things are different in this case since the whole world witnessed what happened. Added to that is the fact that the people of China are intensely concerned about the wellbeing of our former president.

One would presume, however, that if the incident was not the result of some physiological issue it was psychological in nature. If that is indeed the case, it would appear that either Elder Hu or your own subordinates, singularly or in concert, mishandled things badly. Therefore, I suggest that it is incumbent upon you to investigate the matter and determine the details of what exactly happened. Those responsible should be criticised and taught a lesson while a suitably worded statement should be released for the edification of the public. I believe that the matter could thereby be drawn to a close.

I joined the Communist Party fifty-seven years ago and, although I quit it in 1989, I still have the deepest affection for the organisation. In the twenty-eight years that I lived overseas [before returning to Beijing in 2017], I repeatedly declined the opportunities I had to take up a Green Card. Because of my love of home and country I have remained a Chinese citizen. I fear that if what is known as ‘The Unseating Incident’ is not cleared up quickly it will influence the reputation of your Party profoundly, as well as that of my beloved homeland. It is out of a sense of love for my country and responsibility therefore that I have written to you.

Yan Huai

Chinese citizen, Tsinghua alumnus
ID: 110101194510262031
The early hours of 26 October 2022, Beijing








中國公民、清華校友 閻淮
2022.10.26 零時於北京
身份證 110101194510262031