Explained: The truth behind the ‘coup’ against China’s Xi Jinping

Rumour mills were abuzz that Chinese president Xi Jinping was under house arrest and a coup was brewing. There were reports of flights being cancelled and military movement. Was this just the imagination of the internet?

FP Explainers September 26, 2022 12:14:07 IST
Explained: The truth behind the ‘coup’ against China’s Xi Jinping

Chinese president Xi Jinping's abesence from public eye fuelled rumours of a coup. But after his return from the SCO, Xi currently quarantined. AP

If social media is to be believed, there’s a coup in China and President Xi Jinping has been ousted. The internet has been abuzz with rumours after the president has not been seen in public after his return from the high-level Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan, his first official foreign visit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was talk that after being deposed as head of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi has been placed under house arrest. However, there has been no official word from Beijing even as the hashtag #ChinaCoup was trending on Twitter.

So what’s going on in China? We try to get behind the truth.

How the rumours started

The rumours started after several unverified social media accounts started sharing claims of a military coup in China. A Twitter account, New Highland Vision, which has over 20,000 followers, wrote on 22 September that former Chinese president Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao had persuaded Song Ping, the former member of the Politburo Standing Committee to take the control of the Central Guard Bureau (CGB) from Xi.

When Xi learnt of this, he returned from Samarkand on 16 September but was held at the Beijing airport and placed under house arrest, the tweets claimed. However, the Twitter user added that it had not verified this claim yet.

Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong-backed media networks, including New Tang Dynasty (NTDTV), published an article citing that Xi wasn’t present at the national defence and military reform seminar, which fueled the rumour about a ‘coup’, reports ThePrint.

How the rumours grew

Reports of few flights in and out of Beijing and claims that trains and buses were cancelled further fuelled the rumours. Another person shared a video on social media claiming that a large military column was heading toward the Chinese capital. The video of the troop movement was found to be unrelated.

Jennifer Zeng, who has 206.1k followers on Twitter and claims to have insights about China, wrote that nearly 60 per cent of flights were cancelled across the country on 21 September. “No reasons were offered. As of 22:35 on September 21, 16,062 flights were planned for the day, and 9,583 flights were canceled,” she tweeted.

However, India Today reports that while some flights were cancelled there was no unnatural drop in the numbers. Flight operations seemed normal in Beijing and airline activity was normal from 22 September to 25 September.

The fact-checking report concluded that there was a drop in numbers every time there was a spread of COVID-19 or a cluster emerged. The flight cancellation cannot to attributed to military intervention as hinted at by some social media users.

A journalist named Zhao Lanjian, who is in exile in the United States after escaping from China, was the first who made unsubstantiated claims on Twitter about mass flight cancellations because of “unexplained” reasons. This was then reported by NTDTV.

Open-source intelligence analysts found that several accounts with very low followers and none connected to authentic media handles and some strangely from Africa acted as major spreaders of the rumours, according to a report in Tribune.

In India, the rumour seemed to have got a life of its own after a tweet from Bharatiya Janata Party’s Subramanian Swamy.

Getting behind the truth

Xi’s ouster and arrest were all but speculation started by social media commentators.

Columnist Aadil Brar, who is an expert on China, wrote on Twitter, “Xi is most likely in quarantine after coming back from SCO. There is no coup. Looks like a lot of alt-media in India picked up the rumour.”

“If there is ever a ‘coup’ against Xi, it would be led by the political leaders and not the military. A potential ‘coup’ will have very different signs of political upheaval; flight cancellations don’t reflect the chaos that will follow such a scenario,” Brar wrote in ThePrint.

Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said that while a “coup against Xi was possible” it didn’t sound true to him” right now.

“It might be wishful thinking on some people's part. It might be the horrors of Twitter’s algorithm,” he wrote.

While the reports of the coup were picked up by Indian media outlets, the international media did not comment on it. James Palmer, deputy editor, Foreign Policy, wrote, “… there is absolutely no sourcing on the ‘china coup’ claims, which are being cycled through Indian media outlets that have repeatedly proven trash on China. Coup rumors pop up like every six months.”

To put an end to all the speculation, Georg Fahrion, the Beijing correspondent of the German newspaper Der Spiegel, posted pictures of Tiananmen Square and other major venues in the city with satirical tweets on the “coup”.

“Nearby Tian’anmen Square swarms with thugs in plainclothes. I’ve been in China long enough to know these are not tourists,” he wrote in a hilarious thread.

The missed signs

It was business as usual in China. A politician and five police officials were punished last week as the Communist Party continued its anti-corruption campaign initiated by Xi Jinping.

Explained The truth behind the coup against Chinas Xi Jinping

While some social media accounts reported military movement in Beijing, it was business as usual in the city. AP

China’s former deputy security minister Sun Lijun, who was accused of leading a “political clique” and being disloyal to the president was jailed for life on Friday. His sentencing came after five former police chiefs who were implicated in his corruption case were jailed earlier this week, reports South China Moring Post.

The removal of officials, said to be critics of Xi, indicates that he continues to influence the party and remains the most powerful figure in China.

With inputs from agencies

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