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Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made his first public appearance since returning from a trip to Central Asia, quashing unfounded rumors of a “coup” that sparked a frenzy of speculation ahead of a key Communist Party meeting.
Xi on Tuesday visited an exhibition in Beijing showcasing China’s achievements over his decade in power, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
On the network’s flagship evening newscast, Xi was shown wearing a face mask and viewing the displays at the Beijing Exhibition Hall – where photos of himself featured heavily. He was accompanied by Premier Li Keqiang and other top leaders, including all members of the party’s supreme Politburo Standing Committee.
Xi had not been seen in public since returning to Beijing from a regional summit in Uzbekistan on September 16. The visit was his first foreign trip in nearly 1,000 days since the beginning of the pandemic.
His absence gave rise to a swirl of online rumors, which claimed – without evidence – that he had been overthrown in a military coup and placed under house arrest.
The unsubstantiated rumors were further fueled by claims of mass flight cancellations – a common occurrence under China’s zero-Covid restrictions – and unverified videos of military vehicles on the road.
The wild speculation – which originated from Chinese dissident networks before being picked up and amplified by Indian media – was so intense that the hashtag “chinacoup” was trending on Twitter over the weekend.
That the rumor was able to spread so quickly is in no small part due to the highly opaque nature of the Chinese political system, in which important decisions are mostly made behind closed doors.
The absence of information means that even veteran observers of elite Chinese politics maintain a “never say never” approach, noting that while an occurrence such as a coup remains highly improbable, it’s impossible to know for sure what is really going on.
On this occasion, most were quick to point to the total lack of credible evidence supporting the supposed ‘coup.’ Instead, they noted that Xi was likely following his own quarantine rules and remaining in self-isolation after returning from abroad.
Even as the rest of the world has learned to live with the virus, China is sticking to a stringent zero-Covid policy favored by Xi. The Chinese border is still largely closed, with all international arrivals required to undergo seven days of hotel quarantine, followed by three days of home isolation. Xi visited the exhibition ten days after returning to China.
In July, after a short trip to Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule, Xi disappeared from the public eye for more than a week, before he was shown on state television visiting the far western region of Xinjiang.
But the timing of Xi’s latest absence had added to the intense speculation. Xi is just weeks away from the 20th Party Congress beginning October 16, at which he is widely expected to break with tradition and be appointed to a third term in power, further cementing his status as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.
Rumors of political infighting and power struggles have long haunted Chinese elite politics thanks to its lack of transparency, especially in the lead-up to important events such as the five-yearly leadership reshuffle.
Under Xi, this information obscurity has only grown, as he ruthlessly cracks down on dissent and disloyalty in the party and concentrates power in his own hands. As a result, the power of party factions and elders is believed to have been significantly weakened.
“The political opacity really makes it much easier for people to trade rumors. There is very little information being leaked from inside China,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
The growing public discontent toward Xi’s policies also fueled the rumors, Yang said.
“With the zero-Covid policy causing frustrations and the economy in the doldrums, there is a strong desire for change, and we human beings often want to believe in what we hope to see,” he said.