Is Xi Jinping under house arrest amid a coup in China?

We came across the following post being shared in a Singapore-based Telegram channel:

The post contains an undated video taken from a moving vehicle on an expressway in China that appears to show a column of military vehicles heading in the opposite direction. It goes on to claim that the military vehicles were proceeding from Zhangjiakou City to Beijing on 22 September in order to enforce a coup against Xi Jinping, who was under house arrest.

An additional comment below the post links the cancelled flights to the alleged coup by referring to an article in The Epoch Times.

Flights Cancelled, Rumours Fly

When we looked up the article referenced by the post, we found two separate articles relating to these events. In the first, The Epoch Times reports that nearly 60 percent of flights across China were cancelled, quoting the Chinese reporter Zhao Lanjian.

In the second, The Epoch Times speculates that Xi has been placed under house arrest due to his lack of recent public appearances with China’s National People’s Congress fast approaching, where Xi is expected to secure a third term in power. The last Chinese leader to rule the country for more than two terms was Mao Zedong.

The Epoch Times notes the absence of Xi and his handpicked defence minister Wei Fenghe from a ‘high-level military meeting’ and the United Nations General Assembly as signs that could indicate a coup, though it also quotes analysts who inform that a coup is unlikely and the rumours are ‘a show of discontent’.

It must also be noted that The Epoch Times has been rated as a source by the factcheck organisation Media Bias/Fact Check as ‘Right Biased and Questionable based on the publication of pseudoscience and the promotion of propaganda and conspiracy theories’.

These rumours have been widely republished across Indian media and social media. Their reach in India has extended far enough to have been repeated by members of the Indian political establishment such as Subramanian Swamy, a former cabinet minister and member of parliament.

Unfaithful Representations

When we dug deeper into the claims to find out more about its origins, we found the rumours traced back to Falun Gong, the new spiritual/religious movement originating in China. The movement has previously been widely and violently repressed by the Chinese authorities, leading to many of its adherents setting up extensions abroad.

An investigation by Aadil Brar, a former China media journalist at the BBC World Service, found that Zhao Lanjian’s claims of flights being cancelled for ‘unexplained’ reasons were picked up by media networks owned by Falun Gong, including New Tang Dynasty (NTDTV) and the overseas Chinese YouTuber Jennifer Zeng. The clip of the military convoy was first published on Twitter by Zeng.

Drew Thompson, a former US Department of Defence official who is now a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, also found that Zhao Lanjian had himself written several articles for New Tang Dynasty. In addition, The Epoch Times had been revealed by Snopes in 2019 to have been a Falun Gong publication as well.

Together with the dubiousness of these sources, there appears little evidence to corroborate these claims. Goerg Fahrion, China correspondent for the German outlet Der Spiegel, posted a series of satirical tweets intended to highlight the lack of any military activity or chaos that might be expected in Beijing in the event of a coup.

All Quiet in the East

Brar relates in his report that the People’s Liberation Army is firmly under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and as such a coup might be expected to be led by political leaders rather than the military. He also points out that flight cancellations are likely a result of Covid-19-related lockdowns rather than a sign of political turmoil, and that Xi has a habit of stepping back from public view for a few days following busy periods.

In an interview with the Guardian, Drew Thompson further elucidated that Xi Jinping’s recent convictions of long-serving senior CCP officials under corruption charges – historically used as a means of removing political opponents, along with the upcoming National People’s Congress, had created a ‘hothouse atmosphere’ for political intrigue. This amplified the reporting by the Falun Gong media, which often expresses opposition to Xi and the CCP, while being exacerbated by the opaque machinations of the CCP. The Chinese government has not commented on the claims at the time of writing.

As Thompson points out, a coup in China is not implausible. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, was the first Chinese leader since the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949 to take and hand over power without anyone being imprisoned or killed. The question of an uncontrolled succession therefore looms in China as Xi accrues more power without having identified a successor.

Nevertheless Snopes, which has found the rumours of Xi’s arrest to be false, emphasises that the event of a coup in China would be momentous enough to be covered by every major news outlet, such as was the case during the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in 1989.

CNN reported on 28 September that Xi had re-emerged publicly to visit an exhibition in Beijing, accompanied by several of China’s other top leaders.

As such, the claim that Xi is under house arrest amid a coup is false.

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