BEIJING: In a country where events are planned to minute detail and politics is cloaked in secrecy, former President Hu Jintao's dramatic escorted exit from the closing of the Communist Party Congress sent speculation among China-watchers into overdrive.
As per tradition, Hu, 79, had been seated on Saturday (Oct 22) to the left of his successor, Xi Jinping, who was in the process of securing a third leadership term that was confirmed on Sunday.
During the once-in-five-years congress, Xi solidified his grip on power by appointing a Standing Committee made up entirely of loyalists - and excluding the three most senior members of Hu's once-powerful Communist Youth League faction.
The timing and circumstances have thus led to fevered conjecture over exactly what happened and why: Was it a "senior moment" for a man who appeared unsteady when he was helped onto the same stage a week earlier? Or something more sinister: A protest by Hu? A purge by Xi?
Current chairman of China's legislature, Li Zhanshu, is seen taking papers out of Mr Hu's hand, arranging them and placing them back on the table, as well as leaning in and speaking to him.
Numerous commentators said the symbolism, at least, spoke to the demise under Xi's increasingly authoritarian rule of the Youth League and China's tradition of collective leadership.
"It looked like an era has gone," said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, who has lived in Beijing for decades. "It looked, frankly, very weird."
Photos and videos of the incident showed Hu reaching for a red folder on the desk in front of him, being held back by China's top legislator Li Zhanshu, and soon thereafter being led off the stage of the main auditorium of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing by two stewards.
At one point, Li appeared to try to assist him, but was held back by Wang Huning, another member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Hu appeared to be distressed, and to resist being escorted from the stage.
He exchanged words with Xi and patted the shoulder of his Youth League protege, the outgoing Premier Li Keqiang, as he was escorted away.
"I was actually quite stunned about the fact that the whole group of people didn't show any empathy for an old man clearly struggling," Wuttke said.
China's only comment came in a pair of tweets in English late on Saturday by its official Xinhua news agency saying that Hu had been feeling unwell, an explanation that has been met with scepticism by some China-watchers.
Twitter is blocked in China, and there has been no mention of the incident in domestic media.
State TV's Saturday night news broadcasts included images of Hu at the congress, before his exit.
Asked at a regular news conference on Monday about the incident and the global attention it has gained, China's foreign ministry referred to the Xinhua tweets.
China's State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
"This episode probably tells us much more about China's information environment than it does about any power struggles within elite Chinese politics," said Benjamin Herscovitch, a research fellow at the Australian National University.
Chinese politics, always opaque, have become even more secretive under Xi's decade-long tenure.
"Despite the plausibility of a mundane explanation of ill-health, the CCP's secretiveness vis-a-vis senior Chinese leaders and elite Chinese politics lends itself to many more salacious explanations," he said.
On China's Twitter-like Weibo, a few social media users alluded to the incident by commenting on old posts featuring Hu. By Saturday night, the comments sections of almost all Weibo posts with Hu's name were no longer visible.
"I don't know what happened," said Victor Shih, associate professor at the University of California, San Diego. "Obviously, the timing is a bit suspicious."