When China's former President Hu Jintao was escorted out of the 20th National Congress in full view of the foreign press corps, his exit appeared to signal a change in status for a whole generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders who had supported President Xi Jinping's election to an unprecedented third term.
"The second generation of Chinese leaders ... now realizes that [Xi’s] promotion of those who inherited the red genes was done to enhance [his] power and to use them as steppingstones," said Gao Wenqian, whose own family carries the so-called “red genes” inherited from the first generation of party leaders. Gao is now affiliated with the human rights organization Human Rights in China.
Video of Hu's departure from the meeting held once every five years circulated online for days. It appeared to show two men escorting from the hall the 79-year-old who led China from 2003 to 2013. The move prompted online speculation that Hu was suffering a health crisis or was possibly upset over Xi's removal of his proteges from the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
China's state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency tweeted, "Hu Jintao insisted on attending the closing session of the party's 20th National Congress, despite the fact that he has been taking time to recuperate recently."
The thread continued, "When he was not feeling well during the session, his staff, for his health, accompanied him to a room next to the meeting venue for a rest. Now, he is much better.''
But for Deng Yuwen, a political commentator and researcher at the think tank China Strategic Analysis Center, Hu’s removal was “very symbolic.”
"It symbolizes the end of an era,” he wrote in an op-ed for VOA Mandarin. “Not only did the old generation's involvement in politics completely withdraw from the historical stage during the Xi period, but also the relatively enlightened history of the CCP that lasted from Deng [Xiaoping] to Hu's period is gone. China has now entered a new era of Xi's political chill."
The phrase "red genes" emerged in the latter half of Hu Jintao's second term but didn't take hold in the political mainstream until Xi came into power and began promoting all things red, according to the China Media Project (CMP). The CMP website says the phrase refers "to the revolutionary spirit and history of the Chinese Communist Party as a kind of political and cultural inheritance."
Even before the CCP celebrated its 100th birthday last year, tourism, songs and even movies became red – that is, imbued with nationalist significance – as Xi expanded China's global influence.
Yet after the 20th National Congress, which concluded October 22, those with some of China's reddest genes seem to have found themselves bumped to the side. In response, according to Gao Wenqian, "More and more members of the second generation of Chinese leaders are abandoning [Xi]."
"They saw Xi Jinping as an opportunity to realize their ambitions, but soon found out that they trusted the wrong person," Gao said. "In the past two years, Xi Jinping has frequently attacked the most prominent figures in the second generation of the revolutionary families … the princelings."
Hu's exit "exposed the division within the party to the public," Gao said. "It was a major political incident. Some foreign media interpreted this as Xi's attempt to deter opposition forces within the party. But I don't think so. In fact, the damage to Xi politically is far greater than he gained. It exposed the brutality of the CCP's high-level politics … making everyone in the CCP officialdom feel insecure."
Gao listed other targeted princelings: "Chen Xiaolu died inexplicably, Ren Zhiqiang was severely sentenced, Liu Yazhou was placed under house arrest, and even Li Peng's son, Li Xiaopeng, was suddenly out of the 20th National Congress."
Chen, the youngest son of Marshal Chen Yi, who helped found communist China, died after a heart attack in hospital on the southern island of Hainan, according to press reports. He was affiliated with Anbang, the insurance company that purchased the landmark Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. China was prosecuting Anbang's chairman for economic crimes before Chen died.
Ren Zhiqiang, a onetime real estate tycoon, was known for his outspoken criticism of Xi. Ren received an 18-year sentence for corruption in 2020. His father, Ren Quansheng, served as China's deputy secretary of commerce.
Liu Yazhou, a retired air force general and son-in-law of former Chinese Chairman Li Xiannian, was arrested in December 2021. There has been no official statement on Liu's case. Online speculation in China suggests that allegations of his family's corruption masked official irritation over Liu's criticism of Xi.
Li Xiaopeng has been China's minister of transport since 2018 and was governor of Shanxi province from 2012 to 2016. His father, Li Peng, who died in 2019, served as the fourth premier of the People's Republic of China from 1987 to 1998, and as chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress from 1998 to 2003.
Outside China, the elder Li is remembered for his role in the bloody military crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy student movement.