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Rumours swirl about coup against President Xi Jingping. Wishful thinking, say China experts

For past two days, speculation has been rife about a coup in China. Evidence cited includes reports of cancelled passenger flights and footage of military movement.

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New Delhi: Even as rumours of a military coup against Chinese President Xi Jinping have exploded on social media— with the hashtag #chinacoup trending for several hours over the weekend — experts as well as journalists stationed in Beijing have dismissed the claims, saying there is no evidence to back them up

“Looks like a lot of alt-media in India picked up the rumour”,ThePrint columnist and China expert Aadil Brar tweeted. “There is no coup.” Brar suggested that Xi could be in quarantine after his recent overseas summit, as the Chinese law requires.

Greg Fanlon, the China correspondent of the German newspaper Der Speigel, mocked the coup claims by posting images of normalcy in Beijing. “Elite paratroops have wrested control over the gate,” he posted from outside the Zhongnanhai presidential compound.

“I’ve come across zero evidence in Beijing today to substantiate any of the social media rumours,” tweeted Ananth Krishnan, The Hindu’s correspondent in Beijing.

Twitter users had claimed that the powerful Chinese president was ousted and placed under house arrest after he returned from Samarkand, where he attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit 2022. While photographs of Xi’s purported successor, People’s Liberation Army general Li Qiaoming, were widely circulated, others shared videos of what they claimed as military movements of the Chinese military.

The rumours seem to have gained traction in India after the Bharatiya Janata Party Subramaniam Swamy posted a tweet flagging the rumour. Others who tweeted early about the “coup” include media personality Suhel Seth.

Tight control over the media in China, and the lack of transparent information, has often fuelled social-media rumours. Ten years ago, reports of a coup against Xi proliferated on microblogging sites, after the sacking of top Communist Party of China apparatchik Bo Xilai. The Chinese authorities responded by arresting over 1,200 people for spreading misinformation.

The rumours appear fuelled larger narrative of “internal opposition” to President Xi has been playing out in the western media. In Foreign Affairs, former Communist Party School professor Cai Xia argued along these lines. This could be one of the reasons behind the rumour gaining traction.

Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, feels the latest rumours sound like “wishful thinking.”

The international media has largely not reported on the rumour, though the Indian media went into an overdrive.

Foreign Policy deputy editor James Palmer tweeted that “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”.

American journalist Laurie Garrett tweeted about the “coup” but later the Pulitzer winner clarified that it could be false.

Flight operations and coups

Those who smelled a “coup” pointed to halted flight operations in China since Saturday to substantiate their claim, arguing that a steep fall in domestic flights, especially to Tibet, hints at a larger political problem within the country.

However, Open Source Intelligence specialist Oliver Alexander rubbished the claims of a drop in flights, saying that there was no change in flights over China, compared to one week ago. Alexander also explained that commercial flights barely operate over Tibet.

Meanwhile, Thomson, a former US Department of Defence official responsible for China, Mongolia, and Taiwan, explained that the primary factors for a coup would include—messages in state-controlled media talking about a coup, voices within the military discussing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, the declaration of martial law in Beijing, and dramatic changes to the CCP political calendar. 

All of which seems to be missing in the current scenario, he added.

No smoke without fire

 Prof. M. Taylor Fravel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an authority on China, alluded to the fact that though the rumours were a falsehood, the nature of its spread could point to some plausibility.

 Gordon Chang, the author of ‘The Coming Collapse of China and The Great U.S.-China Tech War’, argued that the recent arrest of senior Chinese leaders point to large unrest within the CCP leadership. While he doubted there was a coup, Chang said the shutdown of bus and rail traffic moving out of Beijing is unusual.

 “There’s been a lot of smoke, that says there is a fire somewhere,” he argued.

(Edited by Tony Rai)


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