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China President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Sept. 27 made his first public appearance since a Sept. 16 trip to Uzbekistan.
The timeline of his absence from public view would fit with the country’s strict zero-COVID policy, which requires international travelers to quarantine at a hotel for seven days, followed by three days of home isolation.
Days after the rumors of a coup began circulating, Xi was prominently mentioned in a state-run media report announcing delegates for next month’s National Congress of the Communist Party of China, where he is expected to be granted an unprecedented third term as president.
China President Xi Jinping hadn’t been seen in public for days.
So the internet drew a false conclusion and splattered it all over social media pages: "President Xi of China under house arrest. Coup by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army)," read one of several posts appearing on Facebook and Twitter alleging China’s political leadership was suddenly in peril.
The posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
In this case, it appears, they were nothing but false rumors based on a mixture of flight cancellations, a viral video of a military convoy, the departure of a top general and Xi’s absence from public view.
Experts we spoke with said there was no evidence of a coup underway in China, and Xi reappeared in public Tuesday, seemingly putting the rumors to rest. The Associated Press reported that Xi was shown on Chinese state television visiting an exhibition in Beijing.
"These are rumors for which there does not appear to be any actual evidence. I do not regard the claims as credible," Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, said before Xi’s reemergence. "People are starting the rumors because Xi has been absent from headlines but this is just normal preparations for the upcoming party congress."
Heath was referring to the National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which begins Oct. 16. There, Xi is expected to be given an unprecedented third term as president. In 2018, Xi amended the party’s constitution to remove term limits for presidents.
China hasn’t addressed the rumors publicly, but dashed any notion that Jinping’s power is in question Sept. 25, when the state-run Xinhua News Agency announced the delegate list for the congress with an introduction that praised Xi.
Xi’s hiatus from the public was likely a matter of the strict COVID-19 protocols China instituted for international travel, one expert told PolitiFact. He attended a summit at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan on Sept. 16, where he also met separately with Russia President Vladimir Putin. China’s zero-COVID policy requires international travelers to quarantine at a hotel for seven days, followed by three days of home isolation. Xi’s reemergence in public Sept. 27 would fit that timeline.
"A similar thing happened when he visited Hong Kong fairly recently and he ‘disappeared’ for a week and there was some rampant speculation going on. But he was actually just in quarantine," said Kenton Thibaut, a resident China fellow at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
It’s hard to pinpoint where the coup claims originated.
"This kind of rumor had coincided with a few events that made it seem like on its face a bit more plausible to people that this could be happening," said Thibaut, who said the rumors started a day after Li Qiaoming, a top general, left his commander post. Many claimed it was Li who would replace Xi.
There were also claims on Twitter and elsewhere about large-scale, unexplained flight cancellations and train stoppages, leading some people to make the connection to the military convoy and Xi. In addition, false claims of an explosion in Beijing during the coup were shared, but they used a 7-year-old video from another location, according to Newsweek fact-checkers.
Thibaut said the claims were "seized on" by a subset of Chinese dissidents who often share anti-China conspiracies, but that it really spread by Twitter users in India after Subramanian Swamy, a politician with nearly 11 million followers, shared the rumors. That "made it kind of snowball and go a little bit more viral," she said.
Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official and a visiting research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, took to Twitter on Sept. 24 and attributed the rumors on to a Chinese journalist’s Twitter thread that said about 60% of flights were canceled.
Thibaut agreed, saying flight cancellations are "pretty par for the course during COVID" in China.
Before Xi’s public reemergence, Magnus Fiskesjö, an associate anthropology professor at Cornell University, told PolitiFact he believed the rumors could have been sparked by real-life events. But a sign they were not credible, he said, was that "we have not heard of any sudden changes in the Chinese ruling elite. That should have come out by now."
Georg Fahrion, a China correspondent for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, made light of the rumors in a Twitter thread filled with photos. "Today in Beijing," he wrote, "I investigated the #chinacoup so you don’t have to."
The photos that followed showed orderly daily scenes from several of Beijing’s public spaces, including an adult bicyclist transporting an older person seated on a bike trailer: "Alas, hope is dim," Fahrion concluded. "Coup reinforcements arrive in armored personnel carriers. Send us your thoughts and prayers."
A Facebook post said that China’s leader Xi was under house arrest as rumors of a coup proliferated on social media over the past week.
But there was no credible evidence to support the claim as it traveled across the internet. Xi was out of public view for 10 days, but he reappeared Sept. 27, after this rumor circulated. Xi is expected to be awarded an unprecedented third term as president when the National Congress of the Communist Party of China meets in October.
This claim is False.
Facebook post, Sept. 24
Interview with Kenton Thibaut, resident China fellow at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, Sept. 28, 2022
Email exchange with Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, Sept. 26, 2022
Email exchange with Magnus Fiskesjö, an associate anthropology professor at Cornell University, Sept. 26, 2022
The Associated Press, "China’s Xi reappears on state TV amid rumors over absence," Sept. 27, 2022
Xinhua News Agency, "All delegates to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China were elected," Sept. 25, 2022
Xinhua News Agency, "List of Deputies to the Twentieth National Congress of the Communist Party of China," Sept. 25, 2022
Bloomberg, "Xi’s Core Status Reaffirmed as Party Unveils Congress Invitees," Sept. 25, 2022
Bloomberg, "Xi Makes First Public Appearance Since Returning From Overseas," Sept. 27, 2022
Axios, "China's 20th Party Congress looms closer," Aug. 16, 2022
Newsweek, "Xi Jinping trends online amid coup rumors, canceled flights," Sept. 24, 2022
Newsweek, "Fact Check: Does Video Show 'Blast in Beijing' Amid China's Xi Coup Rumors?," Sept. 26, 2022
Newsweek, "Li Qiaoming: General at center of China coup rumors on social media," Sept. 24, 2022
The Guardian, "China becomes ‘hothouse’ of intrigue ahead of crucial Communist party congress," Sept. 26, 2022
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, "President Xi Jinping attends the 22nd meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of State and delivers important remarks," Sept. 16, 2022
Reuters, "Putin says summit meeting with Xi was "normal"," Sept. 16, 2022
The New York Times, "China’s zero-Covid approach explained," Sept. 8, 2022
Drew Thompson, tweet, Sept. 23, 2022
Drew Thompson, tweet, Sept, 23, 2022
The Associated Press, "China sets Oct. 16 opening date for Communist Party congress," Aug. 30, 2022
NPR, "China removes presidential term limits, enabling Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely," March 11, 2018
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