The Coup that never was. Or was it?

IITM CSC Article #18
11 April 2012
The Coup that never was. Or was it?
On the night of March 19, Sina Weibo, China’s micro blogging website akin to Twitter was abuzz with talks of a possible coup in Beijing. By the time the internet censors got into action, Chinese bloggers had posted about hearing shots near Zhongnanhai - the Beijing neighborhood where China’s leaders live and work, sighted military vehicles on Changan Avenue along the Forbidden City and the Great hall of the People and even posted pictures of PLA in Beijing. Within a day the world media was writing about a “coup” that almost nobody knew anything about. A google search with keywords “coup in China” throws up over 2000 news results from international media organizations including BBC, The New York Times and Foreign Policy. Some claim that the rumors were even affecting global stock and currency markets.
Meanwhile life went on in Beijing, most of the pictures were found to be fake or old. President Hu Jintao traveled to India for the BRICS summit. Surely these were enough of an indication to a ‘normal’ life. Yet the rumors refuse to abate. Beijing is witnessing a political power struggle it has not seen since the suppression of the democratic movement in 1989, which split the party leadership. With seven of the nine Politburo Standing Committee members up for replacement at the 18th Communist Party Congress later this year, the stakes are very high. The scramble over the replacement of these members has been on for months and the fight went public on March 15 with the removal of Bo Xilai, 62, as party chief of Chongqing – a city in Central China. Bo was something of a rockstar in Chinese politics, outspoken, telegenic and he was trying to run an open campaign to get to the Standing Committee.
Bo turned Chongqing into a red bastion, with an emphasis on egalitarian growth, crackdown on corruption and gimmicks such as mass renderings of famous communist songs like “The Sun Is Most Red, Chairman Mao Is Most Dear.” Seen as a new Mao, Bo’s attempt to present a new path for China, made many leaders in Beijing uncomfortable. His fall is a part of the larger struggle between the ‘Princelings’ and the leaders who came up through the Communist Youth Congress path.
Even though Bo has completely disappeared from the scene, within three days of his ouster, bloggers in China were talking of a coup led by his patron in the Politburo Standing Committee Zhou Yongkang against Hu Jintao and his group. Zhou is the head of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee and controls the 1.5 million strong People’s Armed Police (PAP). Just to put the matter in perspective the budget for the PAP for 2012 is higher than the declared budget for the PLA. An attempt led by Zhou could result in a confrontation between the PAP and PLA creating a civil war situation in the world’s second largest economy.
No spokesperson of the Chinese government came on record to deny any coup and there were no sources in the Politburo or in the President’s office that would pass on some information to the media on the matter. What the government did do fueled the rumors even more. Censors blocked searches using words like ‘Changan’, ‘coup’ and even “Bo Xilai”, effectively stopping the bloggers but creating more uncertainty in the minds of the Chinese public and China watchers.
In the absence of any statement from the government, the Chinese people and analysts across the world took to watching China’s Central Television for any tell tale sings of a possible political change. Mention of Zhou attending a meeting in Shanghai but not accompanied with the regular shots of him at the meeting were construed to be important omissions and signs of trouble for Zhou, culminating into rumors of him being placed under house arrest by Hu Jintao. By the time Zhou was shown meeting an Indonesian minister next day the damage had been done and the appearance rubbished as state managed.
Maintaining secrecy and projecting a united leadership is of paramount importance to the party, this strategy has worked in the past. But it won’t work now. Splits and power struggles happen in almost every organized institution that involves more than two people. China is no different. The party  continues to control and divide political power in a secretive way even though the country around it has changed by leaps and bounds. It is no longer the agrarian peasant based society under Mao but has evolved into a complex society that is becoming increasing aware of its rights and voicing different opinions. More than 250 million people use micro blogging websites and exchange information at a rate that is getting harder to control. As the party keeps quiet, speculation rises and rumors spread.
The matter of choosing the seven leaders to the Standing Committee has not been settled yet and there will be several more political battles that will lead to intense speculation in the absence of an official version. The party simply has to devise a way to speak effectively to the people and clear the cloud of secrecy on the transfer of power or risk making China look unstable-something it fears more than anything else. Many Chinese have become so cynical of the official media that they don’t believe anything it says but believe everything on the internet. Perhaps that is why no one knows what is really happening in China or maybe the nine wise men of Beijing are laughing at us because that is exactly how they want it.
School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, Master’s Student
Friday, October 16, 2015 - 14:00
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