It should be easy to prove a coup hasn’t taken place.
Over the weekend, however, as unfounded claims Chinese President Xi Jinping had been deposed spread first from Chinese dissident outlets to Indian media and then across Twitter – based on non-existent or willfully misinterpreted evidence – even respectable China watchers were cautious in their debunking: This almost certainly isn’t happening, but we can’t say for sure.
“The inherent opacity of the system just gives these rumours more room to spread, even if not based on reality,” said Washington-based analyst Bill Bishop.
Mr. Xi hasn’t been seen for a few days, most likely because he is in quarantine after returning from a trip to Central Asia last week – he similarly disappeared from public view after a visit to Hong Kong in July. On Sunday, state news agency Xinhua included him in a list of senior cadres attending next month’s Communist Party Congress.
At that meeting, far from being overthrown, Mr. Xi is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as leader. There are no serious challengers, and he could yet stay in power for another decade.
Even that prediction, however – while the consensus view among analysts – is ultimately a guess based on pronouncements in Chinese state media, Mr. Xi’s own actions and perceived Party norms – many of which have already been broken during Mr. Xi’s decade in power.
“This is analysis imposed on a system by people who have no experience inside the system,” said Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “It’s a political black box at the top.”
Mr. Xi’s fate ultimately rests with the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and a handful of retired Party grandees. Outside that circle, few others know what is going on, whether Mr. Xi is truly in the position of strength he appears to be or frantically making deals and compromises to stay the course.
We may get some clarity at the Party Congress itself, but what goes on behind the scenes will remain shrouded in secrecy.
This applies both to foreigners and ordinary Chinese, who often have scant insight into how key decisions are made on their behalf. But as China faces growing challenges and the spectre of conflict rises with its neighbours and rivals, the lack of transparency becomes more dangerous.
“Beijing’s radical opacity has real-world consequences,” Richard McGregor, an expert on Communist Party politics at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, wrote recently. “How would Xi, for example, make any decision to invade Taiwan? What would happen if the military pushed back? Could the politburo vote to overrule Xi? Does Xi feel pressure from the public to take the island?
“Almost anything China does has global fallout these days, but its internal debates and its decision-making processes are almost entirely hidden,” he added.
Mr. Thompson, a former U.S. Defence Department official, said that even during the Cold War, Washington and other Western powers had greater insight into how decisions were made in the Kremlin, and what to look out for, but “we don’t have any of that with China.”
“So we’re ripe for misperception, for misunderstandings and miscalculations, because we don’t know how they’re signalling,” he said.
Nigel Inkster, a former director at British spy agency MI6, now an analyst with London-based Enodo Economics, agreed Chinese politics can be remarkably hard to parse, even for those who make a career of it.
“We have a number of areas where China seems to be saying one thing and doing another and it can be genuinely be very difficult to work out what their intentions are,” he told The Globe.
Because of the opaque nature of Chinese elite politics, theories about the Party’s functioning depend on historical analyses, which are not always good at predicting the future, or even elucidating the present.
During Mr. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s two terms as Chinese leader, there was much focus on supposed factions within the Party, and a perceived tussle for power between Mr. Hu’s Communist Youth League allies and the “Shanghai gang” around former leader Jiang Zemin.
But Mr. Xi upended this model. Many of his key allies have been linked to factions believed to be in fierce opposition to each other – either he has negotiated (or forced) a peace between warring sides, or the divides were never as great as outsiders once believed.
David Shambaugh, a long-time scholar of the Communist leadership, favours the latter interpretation.
“Since 1989, I don’t think factions have been a very useful or even identifiable thing when it comes to studying Chinese politics,” he said. “We just can’t clearly identify them.”
Even settled history when it comes to China often isn’t as certain as is presented.
Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is often credited – by both Chinese and foreign sources – with kick-starting capitalist reforms and encouraging collective leadership within the Party in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Recent research has challenged both claims. Not only do many now credit Mr. Deng’s predecessor Hua Guofeng with key economic policies, but, as academic Joseph Torigian writes, “the Deng era was emphatically one of continued strongman rule.”
If we are only now understanding one of the most scrutinized periods of modern China – that which followed Mao Zedong’s death – hope of gleaning what is currently happening within the Party’s top ranks can sometimes seem next to impossible.
So inevitably, in the run-up to major events like the Party Congress, we enter the “silly season” of Chinese politics, when rumours abound – and people start shouting coup just because Xi Jinping stayed inside for a few days.