How the false rumor of a Chinese coup went viral
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Hi, and welcome back to China Report!
. If you follow China Report on Twitter, you may have heard a wild rumor that President Xi Jinping was being held under house arrest. It also claimed that there was a power grab in China.
First of all, let me be very clear: this report is false and should not be taken seriously. It has not been verified by credible sources. It’s a wishful thinking scam at best and intentional disinformation at its worst.
. However, it’s fascinating to see how a ridiculous rumor could have been elevated and spread so widely it made it to Twitter’s deeply corrupted trending list this weekend. Today I will trace the origins of this rumor and explain how it gained popularity.
The story went through three stages. It started in Chinese circles, was translated into English by influential people opposed to the Chinese government, and then finally amplified by Indian accounts on Twitter.
Stage 1 : You’ll often see these slanderous political rumors if your Twitter account is Chinese-language. There are many commentators and anonymous accounts that openly speculate about every signal from China’s state media, magnifying every gesture and word, and then interpreting it as something new.
The rumor that’s going around this time had the benefit of coinciding with a few real news events that were combined into a narrative that may look plausible to people unfamiliar with China. Here are the things that actually happened: (1) a Chinese general, Li Qiaoming, left his commander post after five years, and it hasn’t been reported where he’s heading; (2) a 105-year-old retired high-ranking politician made a rare media appearance to talk about respecting the elders; (3) domestic flights in China were experiencing high cancellation rates–as high as 60% last week; (4) Xi hadn’t appeared in public since he returned from Uzbekistan on September 16.
. These were all the information conspiracy theorists needed in order to conclude that Xi was under house arrest. That story first started circulating among Chinese-language accounts on September 22.
These real happenings likely have more boring explanations. Spiking flight cancellations are quite common this year due to unpredictable covid lockdowns in many Chinese cities. In the three weeks before the rumor started, the weekly flight cancellation rates were 60.1%, 69.0%, and 64.1%, according to a Chinese flight tracker app. But for people who aren’t familiar with how badly daily life has been disrupted in China, the rates seemed like an abnormality right before the 20th National Congress, an event organized every five years to elect the top officials of the Chinese Community Party. )
Stage 2: On September 23, the story broke out of Chinese-language Twitter when it was translated into English by Jennifer Zeng, an activist and self-proclaimed journalist, who has a track record of spreading rumors and misattributed videos.
As a TV host for New Tang Dynasty Television and a contributor to the Epoch Times, both of which are backed by the anti-China religious group Falun Gong, Zeng is a key player in a media network that plays an increasingly important role in conspiracies about China and also about elections in the US. Although she has been careful to present the coup story as a “rumor”, she has now posted over a dozen tweets about the topic, continuing to stir up speculation.
Stage 3: This is the most intriguing development. Several separate analyses of Twitter activities on the #ChinaCoup hashtag found that starting September 24, a large number of Indian Twitter accounts picked up the report and spread it far and wide.
For example, one analysis of over 32,000 Twitter interactions by Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, who researches disinformation and digital media, shows that @Indiatvnews, the account of the Indian nationalist TV channel, is the largest disseminator of the coup rumor. Subramanian Swamy, a prominent Indian politician followed by 10 million people, also talked about the story in several tweets on September 24, describing it as “new rumor to be checked out.”
India has the third-largest number of Twitter users in the world. It’s not surprising that they spread the rumor, given the long-standing geopolitical tensions that India and China have.
Despite several recent reports on the rise of bot activity originating in India, there’s not yet enough evidence to determine whether this was a coordinated effort to push the coup rumor. Jones said that there are some suspicious signs, such as “a lot of new account creations and the fact that some of the key influencers have been suspended.” “This does not necessarily mean it is state-backed, but just a lot of fake activities
. Of course, this is Twitter and many other accounts are taking advantage of the popularity of this discourse, amplifying the story. This includes people intentionally trolling unsuspecting users by pairing old videos with the new rumor, and some users in Africa are hijacking the hashtag to gain visibility for their own content–apparently a long-practiced trick among users in Nigeria and Kenya.
By Monday, the rumor was mostly dead. While Xi still hadn’t shown up, recent documents reaffirmed his participation and influence in the coming party congress, demonstrating that he’s very much still in power.
. It’s both funny and sad that a completely unsubstantiated rumor that is common in Chinese Twitter circles could grow so large and trick so many people. The bottom line: Social media is still a mess full of misinformation–but you may not notice that mess if you are not familiar with the issue being discussed.
What’s your thought on the development of this rumor? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Catch up with China
More than 1,400 US-trained Chinese scientists left their US institutions for Chinese ones in 2021–a 22% jump from the year before. (Wall Street Journal $)
- A major reason they’ve left has been the “China Initiative,” a discontinued effort by the US Department of Justice to go after academics for suspected espionage risks. (MIT Technology Review)
One of the first businesses to feel the weight of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing? China-based flag producers. (Associated Press)
Hong Kong officially ended its mandatory hotel quarantine policy, hoping to regain its status as Asia’s financial center. (BBC)
A bipartisan group of US legislators is trying to ban YMTC. This Chinese company makes chips for flash drives. (Financial Times $)
- This could complicate things for Apple, which has confirmed it is considering sourcing flash memory chips from YMTC. (Financial Times $)
China’s top livestream e-commerce influencer has quietly resumed streaming to his 60 million followers after a political controversy. (What’s on Weibo)
- I wrote about his mishap in June; it was the latest development in a year-long power reshuffle that saw three of the top Chinese influencers disappear for regulatory reasons. (MIT Technology Review)
The US and Russia are neck-and-neck in a battle over whose candidate will lead the obscure but incredibly important International Telecommunication Union for the next four years. China is supporting Russia’s choice, it is not surprising. (The Interpreter)
Lost in Translation
The death of a unicorn
As a deep dive in the Chinese business publication LatePost documented this summer, it only took 10 years for the Chinese flexible-screen startup Royole to rise to an $8 billion valuation and then fall to the brink of bankruptcy. Royole, founded by Liu Zihong in China, was once a star among investors and the technological leader for flexible and foldable screens. You may have seen it in fancy smartphones like Motorola or Samsung. The company couldn’t solve the demand problem. It also tried to be a smartphone brand. The company’s smartphone model, which was technically “the first foldable-screen smartphone in the world”, was a huge failure. This made it a weak competitor and not a key supplier to other smartphone makers. Royole was not a fairytale about a startup, but a cautionary tale for all those who dream too big.
One More Thing
You can now get a degree in metaverse studies in China. On September 23, the Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology officially renamed its Information Engineering Department the Metaverse Engineering Department. This is the first Chinese university to do so. The school also stated that it plans to offer doctoral and master’s degrees in metaverse studies. Maybe by the time the first wave of PhDs graduate, we will finally have legs in the metaverse.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.