‘Is Xi Coup-proof?’ (after the march on Moscow, I have to ask)

What about the guys without guns? So if Mr. Xi doesn’t face a rogue army or a military coup… How about a coup by Party elites?

Malcolm Riddell



July 10, 2023
‘Is Xi Coup-proof?’ (after the march on Moscow, I have to ask)

On Saturday morning, June 24, a friend called and asked: ‘Have you seen the news?’

  • I said no, and he said, ‘Well, get on the TV.’

What I saw there was of course the Wagner Group marching on Moscow.

  • Then, the fizzle.

Can’t imagine that when Xi Jinping first heard of the Wagner Group’s march, he didn’t think:

  • Do I have any Prigozhins around me?

And no doubt just as fast as the question came into his head, so did the answer:

  • No.

Unlike Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi has absorbed the first principle for successful autocrats:

  • Don’t set up an independent army outside your control.
  • (That’s also a lesson from China’s Warlord Era a century ago that I cover in the last section - don't miss it, really interesting.)

Still, the march on Moscow was a surprise.

  • And this led me to look again at how likely such a surprise against Mr. Xi might be.

I had to ask:

  • Is Mr. Xi coup-proof?

1 | False alarm

The Wagner march reminded me that about a year ago, rumors abounded that Xi Jinping had fallen from a military coup. As Newsweek reported:

  • ‘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.’ 
  • ‘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.’

Being without basis, this fizzled faster than the march on Moscow.

  • But the march also reminded me that Mr. Xi and other senior cadre have themselves reported concerns about ‘plots’ and ‘traitors.’

2 | Sic semper tyrannis

‘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,’ wrote Richard McGregor and Jude Blanchette in 2021.

  • ‘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.’

Real or justifications, an autocrat always has to watch his back.

  • As an expert, when commenting on President Biden’s calling Mr. Xi a dictator, wrote on a China forum:

‘Dictators for life probably have a hard time buying life insurance.’

  • ‘If they do not cultivate a successor and make it clear they’ll relinquish power gracefully, they’ll end up “eliminated with extreme prejudice” as the mob used to say.’
  • ‘I’m talking to you, PUTINHEAD, Emperor Xi, and fat guy in North Korea.’

Sic semper tyrannis.

3 | What keeps an autocrat up at night?

‘If you are an autocrat, who do you have to fear? Like, what keeps you up at night?'

‘In the popular imagination, what an autocrat has to fear is 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.’

'And who launches coups that are successful nine out of 10 times?’

  • ‘The military.’

‘So if you're an autocrat, what you really have to be nervous about is:’

  • ‘What's the military doing, and is the military coming after me?’

4 | Xi’s military-coup-proofing

‘You can't completely rule out a military coup against Xi,’ says Dr. Mattingly,

  • ‘with this caveat:’

‘I do think that Xi's done enough to make it really hard to launch a successful military coup against him,'

  • ‘Between promoting people who are loyal to him and promoting left-behind officers who aren't well connected to other civilian elites and other military elites, he's done enough on the military side to make it hard to get military buy-in for a coup to occur.'

‘And there are a number of other factors that push against it.'

  • ‘Number one is a real sense of unity and national force that Xi Jinping has effectively stoked by first painting the United States as a threat to China.'
  • ‘Number two is the rhetoric about the role of the Party as an important force in China's very revival.'
  • ‘Number three is Xi's laser focus on making sure the military is loyal.'

5 | ‘The guys with the guns’

Until a few years ago, I would have said that, like Xi’s regime, the American presidency was immune from a coup.

  • Now we know it can be touch & go.

In the ‘60s, I encountered ‘Seven Days in May,’ both as a novel and a movie.

  • The plot: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is thwarted from staging a coup to overthrow the President and take power.

In 2020, this played out, but sort of in reverse.

  • The plot: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff vowed to thwart a defeated American president from using the U.S. military to stay in power.

Re 2020, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker report in ‘I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year’:

  • ‘As Trump ceaselessly pushed false claims about the 2020 presidential election, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, grew more and more nervous, telling aides he feared that the president and his acolytes might attempt to use the military to stay in office.’
  • ‘They're not going to F'ing succeed,’ Milley said. ‘You can't do this without the military. You can't do this without the CIA and the FBI.’
  • ‘We're the guys with the guns.’

That you can’t do it without the guys with the guns is something both Mao and Mr. Xi get:

  • Mao: ‘Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.’ Mao Zedong, Problems of War and Strategy, November 1938
  • Xi: ‘The party must command the gun…. We [will] enhance the political loyalty of the armed forces [and] strengthen them through the training of competent personnel.’ Xi Jinping, Speech on the CCP’s 100th Anniversary, July 2022

But there is one big difference here:

  • In the U.S., the guys with the guns swear allegiance to the American Constitution (thank you, General Milley).
  • In China, to the Chinese Communist Party.

6 | ‘The Party commands the gun.’

But it’s more than the Party controlling the PLA.

  • The PLA is charged with guaranteeing the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The CCP oversees the PLA through its Central Military Commission.

  • To ensure Party control, the General Secretary of the CCP concurrently serves as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

‘Soon after coming to power, President Xi Jinping made sure that the PLA was firmly under the Party’s control by purging numerous generals,’ notes Oxford's Rana Mitter.

  • ‘As they follow coverage of Putin having to admit that a major Russian city was occupied by a rival army, the Chinese Politburo will have no doubts that their ruthlessness in military matters has paid off.’

7 | 'Proficiency in battle ranks fourth'

In ‘China’s military set-up is designed to foil any would-be Prigozhin,’ Charles Parton notes:

  • ‘The People’s Liberation Army is an explicitly political force — and the ultimate guarantor of the party’s hold on power.

‘The People’s Liberation Army is the Chinese Communist party’s army and not a national army.’

  • ‘ “Our principle is that the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party,” said Mao Zedong.’

‘Whatever Yevgeny Prigozhin was plotting in Russia last week — mutiny, insurrection, civil war — this level of military insurrection would never have been possible in China.’

  • ‘The idea that anyone outside the PLA and the People’s Armed Police might have the right to bear arms is anathema.’ 

‘Xi’s military reforms, listed in order of priority, consisted of:’

  1. ‘reinforcing ideological commitment to the party, ‘
  2. ‘recruiting and promoting the right people,’
  3. ‘the fight against corruption,’
  4. ‘proficiency in battle and political innovation.’

‘It is striking that the ability to fight wars ranked only in fourth place.’

  • ‘But this is no surprise, given that the PLA is the ultimate guarantor of the party’s hold on power (in Russia, by contrast, it has traditionally been Putin’s security services, rather than the army, who fulfil this role).’

‘Even at times of chaos, such as during the Cultural Revolution, the PLA, while restoring order, has never acted against the party.’

  • ‘It acquiesced as Mao removed its leader Lin Biao, just as it did when Deng Xiaoping and Xi removed top generals.’

‘If there were to be a severe leadership split which led to economic meltdown, the PLA might align with one or other political faction.’

  • ‘But at present there is only one faction in China and it is Xi’s.’

8 | What about the guys without guns?

So if Mr. Xi doesn’t face a rogue army or a military coup…

  • How about a coup by Party elites?

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.’

9 | Afterword: ‘The Return of the Warlords’

If he didn’t get that lesson not to permit independent armies from the handbook for autocrats, Mr. Xi would have learned the lesson from Chinese history. As Oxford’s Rana Mitter notes in ‘The Return of the Warlords’:

  • ‘A hundred years ago, it was China, not Russia, that was split by “warlords” and weakened by chronic conflict between their private armies.'

In 1911, a revolution overthrew China’s last dynasty, the Ching.

  • And a republic was formed but didn’t last long.

‘China’s brief republican experiment was quickly overcome by a contest between military groups.’

  • ‘China was divided into regions ruled by local armies.
  • ‘The term “warlord” (junfa) was used pejoratively to describe their commanders.’

‘The effects of divided authority were obvious and grim.’

  • ‘No one ruler could lay claim to all of China, and military leaders were constantly forming alliances that fell apart amid internecine fighting.

This map gives an idea of the regions and the changes in territory during China’s Warlord Era. (Sorry for the poor quality, but it makes the point in general.)

‘Patriotic activists lamented that the danger confronting China had become twofold:

  • ‘imperialism from outside, warlordism from inside.’

‘In 1928, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek established a government that nominally unified China.’

  • ‘Yet he spent much of the next ten years fighting rival military leaders as well as the Communists (forcing the latter on the famous Long March in 1934).’

‘In 1937, war broke out with Japan, and in some cases, warlords cut their own deals with the invaders, seeking to preserve their regional power.’ 

‘Once the Communists had won the Civil War in 1949, Mao moved to crush all possible alternative sources of power in China.’

  • ‘The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was established as the Party’s army, not the national army. That is still its status today.

‘The collective memory of the warlord period is one reason why China’s leaders are determined to keep military force firmly under the ruling Communist Party’s control.’

Hence, Mr. Xi isn’t in danger of a rogue army marching on Beijing.

  • Because there are no rogue armies in China.

And unlike the Russian army, the PLA stands loyally poised to fight any threat to Mr. Xi and the Party.



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