What a False Coup Rumor Reveals About Chinese Politics
A baseless story briefly went viral, showing how much of the world misunderstands Beijing’s inner workings.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: A baseless rumor about a coup reveals misunderstandings of Beijing’s politics, Ukraine’s success against Russia raises questions in Taiwan, and China’s ambassador to the United Nations makes an ambiguous statement about territorial integrity.
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False Rumor About Coup Goes Viral
Last weekend, an entirely unsupported claim about China—that Gen. Li Qiaoming had launched a coup against Chinese President Xi Jinping—spread like wildfire through the Chinese diaspora and then among Indian media. Xi appeared in public on Tuesday, dispelling any rumors. The coup story was of course false, but it briefly reached a wide audience, prompting even some prominent figures to repeat the rumors.
It’s not completely implausible that Xi might face a coup within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—someday. China’s economic and policy failures are growing, as is discontent among the Chinese elite. However, unfounded claims like those from last weekend pop up frequently beyond China. How they spread and why reveals how little is known about the center of Chinese politics and how badly it can be misunderstood.
The recent coup rumors followed a familiar pattern. The anti-CCP parts of the Chinese diaspora are often abuzz with stories of intrigue in Beijing’s inner circles, mostly based on nothing. Social media has amplified stories once only shared in minor exile newspapers or among gossipy circles. In this case, a claim by a dissident journalist that flights in China were being canceled started the rumor. (The first sign of a real coup would be a seizure of China’s propaganda organs.)
The global Falun Gong movement—a new religious movement that was banned in China in 1999—is prone to sharing conspiratorial stories and usually plays a key role in promoting these rumors. A Falun Gong-affiliated journalist picked up on the rumors on Sept. 23, tweeting about them many times. From there, Indian media—most notably, the nationalistic channel India TV—and some politicians amplified the story. It eventually died down as more knowledgeable China scholars refuted it repeatedly.
So what do the recent rumors show about Chinese politics?
First, the CCP’s tight control of information sparks rumors. The only so-called evidence of a coup last weekend was that Xi had not appeared in public since his return from Central Asia on Sept. 22. The Chinese leader is often absent for periods of time; he is a human—one who gets the flu and takes holidays. But because the CCP is so protective of its leadership, it can never admit that he’s sick or on vacation. That would disrupt the image of leaders as striving and heroic, not vulnerable.
The guardedness is a holdover from the CCP’s history as an underground movement, and it is a trait shared across Chinese institutions, both private and public. The CCP leadership simply doesn’t share with outsiders, and investigating their private lives is a short route to serious trouble in China. It’s possible that Xi and his entourage were simply quarantining after spending time abroad. But the government couldn’t just announce that.
Most of the world is unaware of daily realities in China. The news of flight cancellations may have seemed suspicious—if not for the fact that Chinese flights have been frequently canceled under the zero-COVID regime, as people in China are all too aware. The later claim that an 80-kilometer-long convoy (almost 50 miles) had surrounded Beijing, on the other hand, required believing that none of the capital’s tens of millions of residents would post photos of it. Censorship in China is heavy, but it’s not all encompassing.
The gap between the outside world’s knowledge of life in China and the reality on the ground has only grown because of isolation during the pandemic. Notably, Indian media outlets with correspondents in China dampened rather than amplified the rumors.
Finally, the military won’t save China. Rumors about a coup in China almost always focus on the military seizing power. But that fundamentally misunderstands the legitimacy of power in a Leninist state and the tight grip the CCP holds over the military. In both the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, the army never led power struggles, even if it was a significant part of them. Any hypothetical anti-Xi movement might involve palace bodyguards, but it would be led by members of the CCP itself.
But outsiders look to the military because the working model of many autocratic states involves a military with a history of taking power and presenting itself as the savior of the nation—from Turkey to Thailand. Xi and the CCP have also effectively destroyed any other institution in China that might provide a genuine font of opposition power. As implausible as a military coup is, it might be all that’s left for those wishing for the imminent fall of the CCP.
What We’re Following
Can Taiwan fight? Meanwhile, Ukraine’s successful defense against Russia has left people in Taiwan concerned that their army isn’t up to task—and that a Chinese invasion might look more like Ukraine in 2014 than in 2022. Although Taiwan is heavily armed, its shift to just four months of service for conscripts has undermined the military, as journalist Paul Huang wrote for Foreign Policy in 2020.
However, there is little public enthusiasm for the garrison state measures adopted by countries like South Korea or Israel in the face of hostile neighbors—although Russia’s war in Ukraine may have changed that. It’s worth noting Taiwan’s situation is different from those who don’t enjoy island state status: Its freedom would likely be won or lost on the beaches or at sea, giving an advantage to the defender.
China’s vague U.N. Security Council statement. In the wake of Russia’s sham referendums in occupied Ukrainian territory, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, released a statement before the U.N. Security Council. “Our position and proposition on how to view and handle the Ukraine issue is consistent and clear: that is the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected,” he said. That raises the question: Whose territorial integrity is China talking about?
Zhang’s statement could equally be interpreted as pro-Ukrainian or pro-Russian—assuming the legitimacy of the referendums. It is typical of Chinese statements throughout the war, which have frequently mentioned peace or international order without offering condemnation of or support for either side. Chinese state media and censors, meanwhile, lean pro-Russian.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Russia Is Sending Its Ethnic Minorities to the Meat Grinder by Amy Mackinnon
• Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem by Stephen M. Walt
• What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now by Tatiana Stanovaya
Tech and Business
Spying accusations. China has accused the U.S. National Security Agency of accessing confidential personnel information at a key government-funded university. It’s certainly possible, though some of the evidence—such as that the attackers used an American English keyboard—does not seem definitive.
In an amusing twist, one piece of evidence given was that the hackers clocked off at 4 p.m. ET and didn’t work on the weekend. This recalls a frequent way of identifying Chinese government hackers (such as during a recent investigation into Facebook influence operations): the two-hour lunch break enjoyed by Chinese government staff.
Real estate funding woes. A Caixin investigation shows that local governments are filling the financing hole created by the collapse of the real estate market with a desperate measure. Local government funding vehicles, which sell municipal bonds, are being pressured to get into business themselves and buy land from the government. Not counting taxes, land sales made up 42 percent of local government revenue in 2021—up from just 5.9 percent in 2000.
But there’s no way local government funding vehicles can fill this gap. There is no demand from buyers, who are waiting for the state to allow prices to fall. Even before 2020, local government funding vehicles contributed to a brewing debt crisis.
Weak yuan, weak predictions. Despite efforts by the People’s Bank of China to prop it up, the yuan continues to fall, hitting a 28-month low against the dollar on Monday. That could cause embarrassment ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party next month, since the political leadership generally associates a strong yuan with a strong balance of economic power with the United States.
What’s likely to be worse is the dismal picture for China’s economy next year. The World Bank has slashed its prediction for GDP growth from 5 percent in April to just 2.8 percent, following other financial institutions. In a developing economy like China’s, that feels like a recession to the public—and a failure to reach the 5.5 percent growth target set by the government.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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