Rumors of a coup in Beijing: what happened?

Policy

Posted 01 October 2022
Updated October 01, 2022



Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Source : The Quint)

Saturday, September 24, suddenly, the craziest rumors ignited the web. A coup would have overthrown Xi Jinping. The master of Communist China arrested, a general of the People’s Liberation Army would have taken control of the country. Incredible news that stirred the Indian media before even being picked up by the respectable American weekly Newsweek. But after the first hours of panic, the breath quickly subsided and the rumor gave way to reality: Xi Jinping is still there, more than ever at the height of power and about to be reappointed for a third term in office. the head of a country where coups d’etat do not exist. With a few days of hindsight, speculation is rife: where did this operation start? It looks very much like a carefully orchestrated disinformation maneuver. Perhaps even at the highest state level. Of course, nothing can be proven.

Back to picture. It is 9 a.m. in Beijing when this incredible news spreads on social networks: Xi Jinping has been overthrown and placed under house arrest inside Zhongnanhai, a set of buildings placed under very high security where the heart of the power on the edge of the Forbidden City in the center of the Chinese capital.

The rumor is accompanied by a certain number of specific details which could give substance to this “information”: almost no more flights over Beijing and a good part of Chinese territory, while a column of tanks 60 kilometers is heading towards Beijing. A specialized application also gives an apparently indisputable image: no theft has been recorded for several hours on the outskirts of the Chinese capital, while a video shot by the driver of a car shows dozens of tanks on the opposite lane of a highway. We distinctly hear this driver commenting live: ” What’s happening ? Why all these tanks in front on the highway? » Impossible to identify neither the driver, nor the license plate of the vehicle, nor either the date of the shooting of this video, nor finally the place of the shooting.

But that was enough to unleash mainstream media comments in India where some claimed on social media that the world was witnessing the fall of the most powerful man on the planet live and that the Chinese regime had changed. of hands. According to some Twitter accounts, sometimes very popular, such as that of the Indian politician with 10 million subscribers Subramanian Swamy or the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett, President Xi Jinping was the victim of a coup d’etat and had been placed incommunicado. by rivals within the Chinese Communist Party. “Planes have completely disappeared from the skies in China and there are rumors of a coup d’etat implemented by General Li Qiaoming to overthrow Xi Jinping,” then claimed a tweet from Laurie Garrett. But as explained India Today, this dirty business has everything on the other side of the coin for OSINT, the intelligence of origin open sources, which allows everyone to access various official data and to draw the conclusions they want – the right ones like the bad ones.

Perfect time for a coup rumor

All this took place in a very specific context. It is common knowledge that anger is brewing in China, in particular over the management of the Covid-19 pandemic deemed catastrophic in cities where hundreds of millions of Chinese have been placed in quarantine in sometimes dramatic conditions. Many unconfirmed reports have also reported growing criticism within the Party’s high hierarchy of its Secretary General, who is found guilty of serious errors, from his handling of the pandemic to his attitude judged too soft on the United States during Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

This discontent is also fueled by a slump in economic growth, which is causing a spectacular rise in unemployment, particularly among young people. This unprecedented phenomenon in China for a long time feeds the specter of social instability. On the other hand, this rumor comes at the approach of the XXth Party Congress which, from mid-October, must decide on the re-election of Xi Jinping, who is hardly in doubt, but also on the entry into the CCP mysteries of a new generation of political leaders.

The time was, in fact, perfect to start a rumor of a coup. The date, obviously, had not been chosen by chance: a Saturday morning when relative calm reigned on Chinese and foreign social networks, despite the media turmoil caused by the war in Ukraine waged by Russia since February 24.

But gradually, seasoned observers of China warned against hasty judgments on events that had not been confirmed by official sources in Beijing. Among them, Nathan Ruser, a researcher from the think tank Australian Strategic Institute, for whom “there is no evidence of a coup in China and no reason to even faintly think there could be one. Xi’s decade of political consolidation cannot be reversed on the grounds of a failed meeting and a few canceled flights. »

“What catches our attention is how this rumor spread and through which networks, emphasizes the weekly Wall pass. The rumor started in Chinese Twitter circles close to anti-CCP networks or linked to the Falungong movement on September 21. No surprise here, the Falungong and overseas Chinese dissident networks love palace intrigue. More surprising is the amplification of these rumors via a constellation of Indian accounts of varying size, which seem to have propelled him to the front of the news. If this news item appeals to us, it is because Twitter and the microcosm of “China Watching” are permeable to this type of content. Also, in this pre-Congress period, let us remember that our hypotheses will never be anything but sports betting,” concludes the newspaper which promises an in-depth analysis in the weeks to come.

That is. This hypothesis is worth another. The Falungong movement and its main relays, the newspaper Epoch Times as well as the US-based New Tang Dynasty TV channel often take extreme positions towards Chinese power. But remember that if the Falungong is indeed a sect, its members are severely persecuted in China.

Like the “Hundred Flowers”?

Other theses exist. Let us quote that of a disinformation operation which could very well have been the work of the entourage of Xi Jinping in order to unmask the opponents of the Secretary General of the CCP before the opening of the congress in order to better eliminate them afterwards. .

This technique had already been used by Mao Zedong himself when he launched the famous Hundred Flowers political campaign in 1957. This one, based on the slogan “Let a hundred flowers bloom!” », invited intellectuals to take the floor to feed a great debate on the future of China, as well as on the political measures to be taken to allow this debate. Very quickly, many intellectuals, believing the time had come to be able to express themselves, had believed in this promise and had therefore come out of the woods. Mao’s stratagem, however, was to be able to identify the protesters in order to then punish them. What was done.

The Hundred Flowers campaign was conducted from February to June 1957. Mao Zedong, to re-establish his authority over the Chinese Communist Party, which had been weakened since its VIIIth Congress, and to improve relations between the Communist formation and the population in a perilous international context , calls for a “rectification campaign”. Shortly after the launch of the campaign, the protest exploded. The Party reacts quickly and launches a ferocious repression which will make several hundreds of thousands of victims, imprisoned, deported and sometimes executed.

Matthew Fulco, a veteran China political commentator based in Taiwan, wrote a humorous comment on his LinkedIn account: “For all of you in cyberspace or physically present who are picking up all these squabbles and causing unrest [尋釁滋事, xunxin zishi, expression souvent utilisée en Chine pour condamner tout dissident politique, NDLR] spreading outrageous rumors about the great leader of the people, shame on you. [Mais en réalité], there is no doubt that Xi Jinping is powerful and hard at work, even if he is maneuvering hidden from the public at the moment. The Chinese Communist Party has reaffirmed that Xi is at the top of the list of delegates who will take part in the 20th Congress. »

The parable of Lin Biao

Xi Jinping actually reappeared in public this Tuesday, September 27 during a visit to an exhibition in the Chinese capital, his first appearance since his return from Samarkand where he had met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. However, continues Matthew Fulco, the fact remains that “Xi has worn the same clothes as his predecessors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in that in the end he gets what he wants from his rivals in the Party. As Mao and Deng wanted, he wants [le pouvoir] more than any other [et, dès lors,] it will be extremely difficult to dismiss it. We China watchers sometimes tend to confuse our expectations for Chinese politics with reality. One of the latest examples was when some of us began to think that the pandemic born in Wuhan was going to weaken Xi. On the contrary, he came out of it stronger. »

This leads us to remain cautious about the future of China and its leader. Because, indeed, to observe the history of this country since 1949, it appears well that the People’s Republic has never known a real coup d’etat. There was indeed the episode of Lin Biao who, as Party propaganda complacently asserts, was plotting against Mao Zedong in 1971. But it all ended badly for him since his plane, a Soviet-made Trident in the colors Chinese, crashed in the early hours of September 13, 1971, near Ondorhaan, 400 kilometers from Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. Lack of fuel, according to the official version, but more likely shot down on the orders of the Grand Helmsman. Long considered a traitor, Lin Biao was rehabilitated on the 80th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2007. His portrait hung alongside those of nine other founding marshals of the Chinese forces at the Beijing Military Museum .

By Pierre-Antoine Donnet

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About the Author
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A former AFP journalist, Pierre-Antoine Donnet is the author of fifteen books devoted to China, Japan, Tibet, India and the major Asian challenges. In 2020, this former correspondent in Beijing published “The global leadership in question, The confrontation between China and the United States” with Éditions de l’Aube. He is also the author of “Tibet mort ou vive”, published by Gallimard in 1990 and reissued in 2019 in an updated and expanded version. His latest book, “China, the great predator”, was published in 2021 by Éditions de l’Aube.

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Rumors of a coup in Beijing: what happened?