How China Coup Rumors Spread Ahead of Xi Jinping's Major Political Event

Twitter was awash with wishful speculation about Xi Jinping's downfall over the weekend, before the Chinese Communist Party said that its leader was still very much in line to extend his rule in three weeks' time.

The outlandish rumors of a coup in Beijing and a military takeover of China's leadership reflect what typically is a highly sensitive moment in Chinese politics.

How China Coup Rumors About Xi Spread
President Xi Jinping of China unveils the Chinese Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee at the Great Hall of the People on October 25, 2017, in Beijing, China. The CCP listed the leader among nearly 2,300 delegates who will together choose the party’s new leadership at the 20th National Congress on October 16, 2022. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

After the CCP holds its twice-a-decade national congress on October 16, party members will decide the make-up of its top leadership.

Many expect Xi, 69, to break with the precedent set by his predecessors, retain the party's top political and military posts, and become the first leader since Mao Zedong to stay in office for more than two 5-year terms.

The party congress traditionally is a major political event surrounded by a certain degree of unpredictability about China's future leaders.

The run-up to it isn't too dissimilar to that of a Democratic or Republican primary in the United States—a contest between rival factions over the best candidate to represent the party's past, present and future.

Since taking power in 2012, however, Xi has overseen several rounds of purges of China's political and military leaders as part of a larger anti-graft campaign that has also swept up many of his rivals.

The latest rumors coincided with Thursday's high-profile sentencing of Fu Zhenghua by a northeast China court.

Fu, who headed the justice ministry, and served as security minister before that, was charged with corruption in April 2022.

China's anti-graft watchdog had also said that Fu and others were part of a disloyal "political clique," a reference to politicians who oppose Xi's authority. He was sentenced to death with reprieve.

Shortly after the announcement, Chinese dissidents took to Twitter, with unverifiable rumors about an internal party revolt at center stage.

Mass flight cancelations apparently were evidence of a rebellion, even though delays and cancelations were a frequent consequence of China's enforcement of its zero-COVID-19 policy.

In China's highly regulated information environment, where there is rarely open discussion about the career prospects of leaders, and where each public appearance is tightly choreographed, there was neither an official nor an unofficial response.

As with most conspiracies, Beijing's silence and the lack of an obvious counternarrative helped the claims gain a fleeting foothold.

"Xi Jinping" was among Twitter's trending topics, along with "Xi Jinping house arrest" and "China coup."

On China's Weibo, meanwhile, a search for "house arrest" returned unrelated results, and a search for "Xi Jinping house arrest" returned an expected system error.

Longtime China watchers would never rule out a palace coup, which could be accompanied by signals including martial law or schedule changes to major events such as the party congress.

However, the atmosphere of certitude surrounding Xi's third term comes from a recognition of the way the Chinese leader has concentrated power around himself in the last decade. He has a symbolic status at the "core" of China's ruling party and influences party ideology in a way not seen since Mao.

On Sunday, the rumors were all but discounted when the CCP published its list of the 2,296 delegates who will together elect the party's leadership next month, with Xi's name among them.

On Tuesday, a mask-wearing Xi was shown on Xinwen Lianbo, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV's prime-time evening news program. He was visiting an exhibition in Beijing, his first public appearance since traveling to Central Asia on Friday.

Speculation about who stays up and who goes down in the party leadership will continue until the final names are announced in October.

The CCP's 20th National Congress will usher in a personnel shuffle, including within the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee at the top of the party, but, more likely than not, it'll be Xi who does the shuffling.