At the beginning of the epidemic in late January and early February, much of the foreign press argued that the coronavirus was China’s moment of crisis that would trigger political turmoil to bring down the Beijing government. As this narrative faded away before the massive and effective government response to the virus, a new narrative has emerged – that paramount leader Xi Jinping is under threat because many Chinese officials blame him for the outbreak of the epidemic and are about to mount a coup to topple him.
This is a recurring story. Over a year ago I wrote:
«Certainly, there is mounting opposition to Xi Jinping’s administration. This opposition considers the issue of getting rid of the top leader according to the rules of the system: you can’t peacefully vote him out of power, you must use force – you have to stage a coup and take him out. So, the attempts on his life were most likely real, and communist China has a history of attempted coups. But did they succeed in their goals? And how were they staged?».
And the only successful coup in the history of the People’s Republic was staged in 1976 against the Gang of Four. Here «the three main plotters controlled all the crucial elements: the party organization, the army, and the personal security of the people arrested». That is, the main plotters were already in control of the party and the military and got rid of the challenge from the opposition. That was quite a different situation from the present one where Xi holds all the cards.
In the Party
Moreover, the CPC has rules limiting and strictly regulating meetings of senior officials outside of the appointed occasions. This was imposed a long time ago by Mao to thwart possible plots and as far as we know the rule is still in place.
In past years, Xi not only arrested a lot of people but deconstructed the party apparatus and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), moving people around to break their chains of loyalties. Everybody now works in environments where they can’t be sure of where other people stand, and thus they are all wary about expressing themselves let alone organizing a coup against Xi.
A coup needs first and foremost a secretive, efficient, and quite pervasive organization. Without it a coup turns into civil war or the putschists are all arrested and killed by a firing squad (or die in a plane crash, as happened to Lin Biao in 1971).
How can there be any organization against Xi in these circumstances?
What some people register, confusing the signals, is that there is widespread, pervasive opposition to Xi among officials and their extended families (all formerly benefitting from the old pre-anticorruption life). But this opposition is scattered, with no glue or mortar to hold it. This sand-like opposition vanishes anytime and anywhere Xi puts his foot down.
This is apparently the situation in China.
Furthermore, the impression in China one gets from the official press is the following: There has been an epidemic. The party might have been slow and made mistakes at first, but thanks to its efficient organization it responded forcefully and quickly put the situation under control to resume gradually some form of normal life.
In comparison, the West had all the advantages and made all the mistakes. It underestimated the epidemic, like the party did at first, and fumbled the response, causing after the alarm more deaths percentage-wise than in China. Maybe there might have been more deaths in China before Beijing came to realize the gravity of the situation. But the disease was hard to comprehend when it got to Europe or America, imagine how difficult it was to understand when it broke out. Then so far Beijing wouldn’t be losing.
Looking at things from Beijing, which system worked better?
The true winners of this game of “who did it better” are South Korea and Taiwan, who saw the danger immediately and reacted fast without limiting democratic freedom. But neither country has the mass and gravitas to challenge China. Then, they appear to be incidents or adaptations of the Chinese way.
The pandemic is still a long way from ending, but it apparently shows that China is quite quick on its feet and should not be underestimated. China seems set to be reborn after the disease, but its rebirth will depend on many things, including the Western reaction to its own epidemic and to China.
On the other hand, the dogged and growing rumors of a coup in China, if they don’t tell us that a coup is soon to happen in Beijing, do tell us that a lot of Chinese, possibly those with power and money, hate Xi and would like him removed. This is Xi’s greatest hazard; it is mainly internal although it feeds external mistrust and suspicion.
In other words, Xi may be doing well, he may also have the support of many of his people who saw he did properly in the fight against the pandemic, but this didn’t dent the obstinate internal hostility, which may be small, but looks bigger because it is hidden and not able to be expressed in the open. That is, the best recipe to preempt coups is to bring the opposition into the open and fight it in a public arena.
(Francesco Sisci is an Italian Sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. Currently he is a senior researcher at China’s People’s University and contributes to several journals and think tanks on geopolitical issues. He is author of ” The BRAVE NEW CHINA: A NEW CHANGE”)