Rumors of a coup in China

The late writer-journalist and China hand Theodore White once said that politics and power struggles in China are opaque, like huge sea monsters battling under water. All the outside observer sees are the churning waves and foam. Occasionally, we get a brief glimpse of the players as the monsters come up for air.

In the last few days, rumors of a coup — or at least of a political struggle for power between rival factions of the Communist Party — are coming out of China, despite the country’s heavily censored Internet.

Josh Chin and Brian Spegele report for the Wall St. Journal, March 20, 2012:

On Monday night, Internet users were startled by reports—entirely unsubstantiated—on China’s wildly popular Twitter-like microblogging sites of gunfire in downtown Beijing. Nerves were further jangled by accounts of a heavier-than-usual police presence along Chang’an Avenue, one of the capital’s main thoroughfares.

Among the legion of social-media fanatics, there has been fevered chatter of a political struggle inside the towering walls of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in downtown Beijing.

One theory, widely explored: A battle is brewing between Zhou Yongkang—the country’s domestic security chief who is believed to be a strong supporter of Mr. Bo—and President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and other leaders who analysts say likely supported Mr. Bo’s ouster. Mr. Zhou is a member of the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, and one of the country’s nine most powerful political leaders.

The Communist Party’s grip on power depends in large part on maintaining a facade of unity, so the online rumor mill is clearly unsettling China’s propaganda officials and their armies of Internet censors.

The same day, March 20, Andy Lees — formerly of UBS and now at AML Macro Ideas — also weighs in on the coup rumors:

[...] there has been some chatter of a coup in China. An article on the web says “Over the night of March 19th and early morning of March 20th, Beijing local time, a message about a large number of military police showing up in Beijing spread widely across microblogs in mainland China. The key figures in the action are said to be Hu Jianto, the head of the CCP, Wen Jiabao, the premier; Zhou Yongkjang who has control of the People’s Republic of China’s police forces; and Bo Xilai who was dismissed from his post as the head of Chongqing City Communist Party on March 15th by Wen Jiabao after a scandal involving Bo’s former police chief”. The article does not really say anything beyond that. Some people have dismissed the troops as security for a North Korean delegation. It could also be to head off any demonstrations against the fuel price hikes.

A second article says that around New Year’s day 2 airforce officers were arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup, and a nuclear submarine on potrol [sic] was ordered back to port because they were thought to have links with the plotters.

There may be absolutely no truth in any of this, but if there is the possible consequences could be enormous for the global economy, for Chinese economic policy response – (remember the cheques that Saudi Arabia wrote to buy calm in the Arab Spring) – and for market volatility generally. 

Tighten your seat belts, friends. We’re heading toward even more turbulent times….

~Eowyn

7 responses to “Rumors of a coup in China

  1. I’m not sure of the validity of these rumors, but I can attest to the clampdown by the communist government in China. I taught Economics at a college in Beijing on two occasions and I had a communist observer in all my classes at all times. Many of my former students attempt to contact me via Facebook, but are only successful a few times a year. Despite all its economic gains of the past few decades it’s still a very closed society and the communists are very fearful of democracy or exposure to open societies.

  2. Great reportage! I’m sending it off immediately after making this comment.

    Dr McAfee, my old China History prof in college used to say that modern political theories of China are just that: theories. The best way to interpret and understand what’s really happening is to watch the infrastructure in general, but especially its hydraulic component, the canals. As long as the canals work properly, the roads are safe, and there are no pirates, then the Kingdom is stable and the ruler has the Mandate of Heaven. But when the infrastructure crumbles, goods don’t move well, people are robbed on the roads and seas, them the Mandate has been lost, and the Kingdom will fall. So it goes. Sounds much like any developed country!

    • Joseph,

      Your prof was simply stating Karl Wittfogel’s classic and peerless thesis on Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. Few, if any, college courses on China teach that these days, although it was the linchpin of mine. Here’s a summary & review:

      Regarding Wittfogel’s classic work with the “politically correct” lens of today, it is unfortunate that he titled his book “Oriental Despotism” because that too often leads to readers’ hasty (and erroneous) conclusion that (a) Wittfogel believed that only the “Orient” or governments east of West Europe were dictatorial; and therefore (b)Wittfogel most certainly must have been racist.

      Alas, neither assumption is true because Wittfogel included into his class of “Oriental Despotism” also such polities as Egypt of the Pharaohs, Czarist Russia, and the pre-Columbian kingdoms in Central & South America, such as the Incas and Aztecs. And those certainly were not “oriental”!

      To date, Wittfogel’s thesis remains insightful and important. This is that geography or ecology determines the kind of government that is formed–IN A PRE-INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY. He hypothesized that in the pre-industrial age, places that undertake “hydraulic” agriculture have a hyper-despotic (or dictatorial) government for functional reasons. His thinking goes as follows:

      * Pre-industrial farming can be divided into two types: (a) hydro (where farming has the good fortune of on-the-spot rainfall; or (b) hydraulic (where there is fertile soil but not on-the-spot rainfall; therefore, water will have to be brought in via irrigation or hydraulic engineering, e.g., dams, reservoirs, irrigation channels, and flood control dikes).

      * In a pre-industrial society, however, this large-scale hydraulic construction requires the manual labor of LARGE numbers of people.

      * Human nature being what it is, most people cannot see the benefits to themselves of engaging in such labor.

      * Therefore, people will have to be coerced to undertake such labor–but only in the agricultural off-season, so as not to affect farming. Thus, this is a semi-slave or corvee labor.

      * To coerce people to work on the hydraulic projects requires a very powerful–i.e., despotic–government.

      * Once such a despotic government is in place, nothing can stop it from growing even bigger and more dictatorial, short of a massive popular uprising that is extremely destructive in lives and property. Nor can such a government be prevented from using corvee labor for non-hydraulic projects, such as the construction of palaces, mausoleums, the great pyramids of Egypt, the impressive “temples” in Central & South America, & the Great Wall of China.

      * Once such a hyper-despotic state is in place, the ruler (be it pharoah, czar, king, or emperor) shapes the society’s culture & ideology to his own benefit, into one that emphasizes the status quo, obedience & submission to authority, and a hierarchical authoritarian social structure; and deemphasizes individualism, freedom, and innovation.

      * This hyper-despotic state is unchecked by anyone–man or institution (such as church)–which makes it different from the despotism of monarchies in medieval Western Europe. The latter at least had to contend with the Catholic Church. Ergo, the name “Oriental Despotism” to contrast it with the garden-variety “Western (European) Despotism.”

  3. Many thanks for original source on this! Now I have to attend to a hydraulic of my own: installing a three piece tub & shower surround for a new client.

  4. Confucius knew what he was talking about!

  5. Not sure what to make of this just yet, as Chinese politics are not a little convoluted.

    Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

    -Dave

  6. Could this be related to the problem? Not speaking Chinese, I have to trust the English captioning.

    Professor Lang’s 2 hour presentation was on Youtube awhile back. Since then it’s disappeared. It had no english captioning so I didn’t understand a word of it!

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