China Coup: How Worried Should Xi Be?

‘Xi and the phrase #ChinaCoup trended on social media after tens of thousands of users spread unconfirmed rumors that the president was detained and overthrown by the China's People's Liberation Army.’

Malcolm Riddell



September 26, 2022
China Coup: How Worried Should Xi Be?

‘Chinese President Xi Jinping became one of the top trending topics on Twitter amid unsubstantiated reports he is under house arrest and that China is in the midst of a military coup,’ writes Newsweek.’

  • ‘Xi and the phrase #ChinaCoup trended on social media after tens of thousands of users spread unconfirmed rumors that the president was detained and overthrown by the China's People's Liberation Army.’

The rumors started from the piecing together of several unrelated ‘facts,’ including:

  • Mr. Xi hasn’t been seen since his return to China from Samarkand after the Shanghai Cooperative Organization. [COVID quarantine?]
  • 1,000s of flights cancelled around Beijing. [Debunked by India Today]
  • A senior PLA officer who had been dismissed from his command showing up at a meeting he shouldn’t have attended.

I hadn’t planned to write about this.

  • But I got so many emails and texts, I decided to throw in my two cents.

No. I do not believe Mr. Xi has been ousted.

  • I’ve read countless Twitter posts and media commentaries (many of which to originate in India) – and I haven’t seen anything that resembles evidence of a coup.

Of the serious China Watchers, Bill Bishop gives the best analysis in a special Sunday edition of his Sinocism newsletter.

  • He begins: ‘Apologies for working on a Sunday, but the rumor frenzy over the last 48 hours has gotten out of control.’

The good news about the rumor frenzy is the tweets that poke fun at the idea of a coup.

  • One of my favorites is above: Mr. Xi working at a dumpling shop – the location is different with each different post.
  • And, for showing the sheer inanity, of the frenzy have a look at a series of tweeted photos + comments by Georg Fahrion, China correspondent for Der Spiegel. Here’s the first one

While the recent rumors of a coup are overblown, the possibility of Mr. Xi’s being removed from power is not.

1 | Implausible?

Just because the latest coup speculations seem without legs doesn’t mean that a coup, though unlikely, doesn’t concern Mr. Xi.

‘Plots to overthrow Xi and his administration are not the product of fevered imaginations but rather have been widely spoken of by senior Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping himself.’

  • ‘Many date back to the early months of 2012, underlining Xi’s belief that rivals wanted to prevent him from taking over leadership of the CCP later that year.’
  • ‘Others are vague and amorphous accusations of unnamed “plots” by anonymous “traitors” that are likely levelled to justify Xi’s shakeup of the party bureaucracy and his wide-reaching intra-party discipline campaigns.’

‘In an internal speech published in 2016, Xi spoke of “political plot activities” designed to “wreck and split the Party.” ’

  • ‘That same year, the then-head of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Liu Shiyu, accused disgraced officials, including Sun Zhengcai and Zhou Yongkang, of “[plotting] to usurp the party’s leadership and seize state power”.’
  • ‘Vice President Wang Qishan echoed Liu’s remarks, warning that “some [senior officials] even sought to . . . seize party and state power”.’

2 | ‘Sic semper tyrannis’

On the issue of removing autocrats from power, Yale’s Dan Mattingly in the Pekingolgy podcast ‘Does Xi Jinping face a coup threat?’ notes:

  • ‘If you are an autocrat, who do you have to fear? Like what keeps you up at night? If you are not just Xi Jinping, but any autocrat.'

‘In the popular imagination, what an autocrat has to fear unrest. He has to fear protestors in the street, storming the gates and taking him down.’

  • ‘Generally though, what has led to the unconstitutional exit of authoritarian leaders from office isn't mass protest, isn't mass uprising - instead it's coups; it's other elites taking down the leader.’

‘And that's really what autocrats have to worry about.’

  • ‘A study shows that almost 70% of leaders in the post-war period of autocratic leaders when they've exited office has been because of coups.’
  • ‘And so it's this fear of other elites that's really important.'

‘If you look at Chinese history, you want to go back before the Chinese Communist Party, go back before 1949.’

  • ‘Look at Imperial China, something like a fifth of Chinese emperors were killed in office and another fifth were deposed by other elites.’

‘Before the CCP came to power in 1949, these were things the Chinese political system has had to deal with.’

  • ‘The CCP, of course, is way different than Imperial China and has been successful to date in fending off coups.’

‘What's the secret sauce that the CCP has that has avoided attempted coups?’

  • ‘If you take a kind of broad view of different types of authoritarian regimes, one-party regimes like China under the CCP are generally more stable, more resilient, less likely to experience a coup.’
  • ‘Military dictatorships – and China is by no means a military dictatorship - are more vulnerable to coups than one-party systems like China.’

3 | Brutus had it easier

Again in ‘After Xi: Future Scenarios for Leadership Succession in Post-Xi Jinping Era,’ Richard McGregor and Jude Blanchette point out:‘It is true that Xi has a host of enemies in the party.

  • But ‘the chances of a coup being mounted against Xi at the moment, absent a systemic crisis, are exceedingly small.

‘It is equally true that the barriers to organising against him are near insurmountable.’

  • ‘Successfully organising a coup against an incumbent leader — especially one in a Leninist one-party state — is a daunting challenge.’

‘Given the technological capabilities of the CCP security services, which Xi controls, such an endeavour is fraught with the risk of detection and the possible defection from early plotters who change their mind.’

  • ‘Despite their enormous power, senior members of the CCP and the PLA lack the basic ability to move about and communicate unnoticed by Xi’s all-seeing security apparatus.’
  • ‘Xi’s increasing grip over domestic security services means that the communication between would-be challengers necessary for arranging logistical details would be next to impossible.’

4 | Not so fast

Staging a coup is one thing; holding power afterward is another.

  • As small as the chances of a coup are, it is also worth considering four other possible scenarios absent a new leader being quickly and firmly put in place.

1 | The Chinese people don’t agree.

  • Mr. Xi, thanks to a magnificent and ongoing PR effort, is popular with the people of China who could mount massive, widespread protests and demonstrations, demanding Mr. Xi be returned to power.
  • Even if this fails, China could become ungovernable.

2 | Not all elites agree.

  • Mr. Xi has done a good job of cleaning out his enemies and installing officials and military officers loyal or at least beholden to him.
  • Mr. Xi’s supporters among the political elite and the military could mount a countercoup to put Mr. Xi back in power.

3 | The plotters don’t agree.

  • The plotters themselves could splinter, fight among themselves, and be unable to put a new leader in place or in place for very long.
  • This would give room for countercoup-ers or just leave China in chaos.

4 | Neither side wins, then civil war

  • Plotters and the establishment could face off in a civil war that could lead China into another fragmented, 1920s-style, warlord period.
  • Then it’s all up for grabs.

5 | 'Meet the new boss; same as the old boss' [?]

The Party elite may see Mr. Xi’s ouster as an opportunity to change course.

  • They could pick a new leader who would mend fences with the U.S., the EU, India, and other countries with whom China has clashed.
  • One who would dial down tension in flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea.
  • A new leader who would provide a level playing field to foreign companies and abide by the letter and spirit of the international trade regime.

More likely, they would pick a new leader who continues along Mr. Xi’s path with a few tweaks.

  • While many in the Party elite may feel that Mr. Xi went too far, the general direction from the start was set – and tacitly or explicitly - supported by them.

So, if you hoping for a new leader to replace Mr. Xi, be careful what you wish for.

  • He could be as bad or worse for the U.S. and its allies - and a bigger challenge to the liberal world order.



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