This was psychological warfare at its best. The world found Xi Jinping trending on Twitter on Saturday (the third top trend in India), albeit for reasons that did not make the Chinese happy. Twitter was full of unverified rumours about Xi being placed under house arrest in a palace coup. The reports said the Chinese president was detained after CCP seniors removed him as head of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The coup reports emerged after Xi’s return from Samarkand in Uzbekistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Summit (SCO).
This year's SCO summit will not be forgotten in a hurry. Rumour had it that Xi wasn't seen after the summit; he had skipped dinner. Soon after his return to Beijing, reports of massive cancellation of flights added to speculations that gripped Western and Asian media. The speculations also coincided with China sentencing two former ministers to death and four officials to life imprisonment.
The timing of the anti-corruption crackdown is important.
Coming ahead of the CCP's 20th Party Congress on October 16—the biggest event in which Xi will be seeking an unprecedented third term in office—massive disinformation campaigns took several countries, including China, by surprise. Military watchers and strategists in US, Taiwan and Nepal showed special interest.
One of the reasons why the disinformation campaign around Xi's house arrest gained traction, as well as credence, is because the news depicted General Li Qiaoming as the protagonist leader to organise the coup. Qiaoming, 61, a former commander of the PLA Northern Theatre Command, has been favoured by Xi in a way that created dissatisfaction among many senior military leaders in China, according to experts. He jumped to a post which normally takes five years or more of service.
"This was because Xi identified him as the present generation Chinese military thinker and strategist,'' said a senior security official. The unconventional promotions given to a few juniors or younger PLA officers have been a sore point for PLA seniors, who had come up through proper channels with great patience, the official said.
The issue of promotions to be announced during 20th Party Congress is of great interest. Within China, the many aspiring, older PLA generals and officers are watching the developments closely; whether it is for the Americans or the Japanese, the outcome of the 20th Party Congress will determine future engagements.
In fact, General Li Qiaoming is likely to enter the Central Military Commission at the 20th National Congress. On September 8, he was replaced by Wang Qiang, the new NTC commander, and he attended the meeting of the CMC on September 21. Experts said he may become one of the vice chairman of the CMC, which opens the door to him becoming a politburo member.
Qiaoming's rise happened after 2013, when Xi came to power. He joined the PLA in December 1976, and is a member of the 19th CCP Central Committee. With experience in the Sino-Vietnamese War, he held several key posts in artillery brigade, military affairs division and training division before being appointed as chief of staff of the PLA 41st Group Army in January 2010. In less than five years, he was appointed commander of the PLA 41st Group Army in 2013. During the military reforms in 2016, he was promoted to deputy commander of the NTC. In August 2017, he became commander of the NTC—a post he held for five years.
Unlike other senior generals who rarely speak on major political issues, Qiaoming has been writing articles regularly. Interestingly, in 2013, he published an article 'The Historical Tragedy of the Non-Partyization of the Soviet Army', a lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was to illustrate the importance of the party to the leadership of the army. "The Soviet Union disintegrated because the party did not have its own army," he said.
As it gets down to more serious business in China, social media aside, all eyes are now on how the 20th Party Congress strengthens the CCP's control over the army.