One of the truths of reporting on China is that few journalists, maybe none, can honestly claim to know what’s going on inside the upper echelons of power.
In other countries, you might see reporters offhandedly refer to their unnamed contacts inside the Prime Minister’s Office, or the White House, or whatever institution they’re covering. Even when I worked in famously enigmatic Russia, I had a few “Kremlin sources” I could occasionally turn to.
Not in China. I know many of the foreign journalists based here, and more than a few of the Chinese ones. None have ever claimed to me, or their readers, that they have a contact inside, or even close to, the decision-making Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China.
Which, often, is to the credit of those who run this country. This is not a place where trial balloons get floated by cabinet ministers trying to build public support and win funding for their pet project, nor are China’s leaders crippled by the constant and public infighting that brought down Canada’s Liberal Party or Britain’s Labour, to name two prominent examples.
But the wall of secrecy that Communist Party leadership has built around itself also prevents the development of trust between the government, media and public. It leaves the media with no one to talk to and get real information from when there’s a wild rumour floating about, like the continuing – and so far unfounded – talk that some kind of coup d’état was attempted Monday night in Beijing. And it leaves the public unsure of what to believe in such situations.
The coup rumour began with Chinese bloggers noting some unusual security around the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in the centre of Beijing on Monday night. The speculation grew more excited when some residents reported hearing gunshots in the area.
The whispers gained a wider audience a day later when websites like the Falun Gong-linked Epoch Times (“ Coup in Beijing says Chinese Internet rumour mill”) and the Taiwan-based Want China Times (“ Shots Fired in Beijing – but what kind?”) quoted unnamed “sources” suggesting a coup attempt had been launched against the government of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
The mutiny was supposedly led by a leftist faction inside the Politburo headed by Zhou Yongkang, the chief of China’s massive internal security apparatus, and the recently ousted leadership contender Bo Xilai.
In another country, reporters would have been on the phone to people in the offices of Mr. Hu, Mr. Wen, Mr. Zhou and Mr. Bo, in all likelihood getting a quick denial that there was anything like a coup happening.
(I should add here that if there is a serious conflict inside Zhongnanhai, it seems odd that security in the rest of Beijing remains normal, without even the extra police presence regularly seen during national holidays and major political events. Chinese official media have said there was a meeting between senior government leaders and a North Korean delegation at Zhongnanhai on Monday night, something that could explain the extra security, if not the reported gunshots.)
But no one has the rock-solid contacts who can irrefutably confirm or deny such a sensitive tale, especially not now, with the Chinese political scene in uncommon turmoil following the dramatic firing of Mr. Bo last week.
So the rumour has continued to snowball all week, to the point where some believe it had an effect on the foreign exchange markets. The esteemed Financial Times finally felt compelled to report on Thursday that “ the Chinese capital is awash with speculation, innuendo and rumours of a coup.”
And now I’m passing on the scuttlebutt too. Why? Because no one in Zhongnanhai is taking my calls. They’re not taking anyone’s calls – which leaves the outside world in the dark at a crucial moment in Chinese history (by which I mean the once-in-a-decade leadership transition that begins this fall, not the rumoured coup effort).
Try it: Google “according to a source inside the Prime Minister’s Office” and you get 85,600 results.
Searching “according to a White House source” gets you 131,000. “According to an al-Qaeda source” brings 19,900.
But “according to a source in the Chinese Politburo”? None. When this story gets posted online, it will go right to the top of the charts as the first use of that phrase in all of Googledom.
Maybe that distinction will convince someone in Zhongnanhai to ring me up – an off-the-record conversation is fine – to let me know what all the fuss was about on Monday night.