Rumors continue to swirl of a political uprising in China. We touched on them earlier this week, but we didn’t delve into them because they were unverified and, frankly, hard to believe. And while they remain unsubstantiated, it behooves us to consider exactly what has been said and why.
Last Friday, online reports indicated that gunfire had been heard for roughly 40 minutes in Beijing near the Second Ring Road. The reports claimed it was a violent spasm by groups that sought to overthrow Chinese President Xi Jinping. The following day, French public radio reported it had heard rumors that former Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had allied with other disgruntled Chinese officials in an attempt to force Xi to step down. A Hong Kong tabloid went so far as to suggest that Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, might be the compromise leader next in line.
Like we said, these stories are hard to believe. China is good at censoring its media, but it stretches the imagination to think there would be politically motivated violence in the Chinese capital with nothing but a few blips on social media to show for it. What’s not hard to believe is that there is dissent within the Chinese ranks. A recent protest of army veterans had to be put down by force. The U.S.-China trade war is putting pressure on China’s economy – so much so that Xi’s campaign to reduce debt has been deprioritized as Beijing moves to support growth. China has gagged the media over the coverage of the trade war. It likes to project confidence to the world, but the political, economic and cultural transformation it has planned (and has already begun to execute) inevitably leads to dissent. This is why we will at least notice even the most outlandish headlines.
As for the rumors themselves, there are a few possible explanations for them. The first is that they are wholly unfounded, the products of disinformation spread by those who want to make the government look weak. The rumors are specific but are backed up by nothing, so this explanation makes some sense.
Another possibility is that Xi is indeed encountering serious resistance within the Communist Party – he has, after all, eliminated term limits and emphasized deleveraging at the expense of economic growth – and that Xi has been forced to compromise on the goals he laid out for China late last year. If this is true, it suggests Xi will be forced to blink in the trade war earlier than expected. The third possibility is that the rumors were a Chinese government plant designed to flush out opposition to Xi’s rule.
The likeliest explanation, though, is that the rumors are sensationalism. Some went so far as to suggest that Xi hasn’t been seen in weeks – except that he just landed in the United Arab Emirates on Friday. If Xi is under pressure, he is showing no signs of it. China and the UAE released a plan for a comprehensive strategic partnership to wide fanfare in Chinese media. In the past 24 hours alone, moreover, the Chinese government has released a new tax plan meant to increase control over collection, published an op-ed written by Xi in a Senegalese newspaper (and republished by Chinese news agency Xinhua), and announced its intention to invest around $100 million in North Korean infrastructure.
Still, China is under immense pressure as Xi attempts to reform the economy while fighting a trade war and solidifying his position as dictator-in-chief. Even the faintest whisper that a coalition may be forming against the newly appointed emperor deserves the closest possible scrutiny and requires an extremely close watch on all internal Chinese issues – as close a watch as can be affected in a country that has become an expert at projecting nothing but blue skies.
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