How fake news of “coup” in China and arrest of Xi Jinping started and who was responsible for spreading it

A rumor about the arrest of Chinese President Xi Jinping surfaced on Twitter last weekend. The source of this false information was exiled Chinese opponents in the United States.

Rumors of a coup against Chinese President Xi Jinping surfaced on social media on Friday (Sep 23), as the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress opens on October 16, with the re-election of Xi in game. This fake information actually comes from activists opposed to communist power. 

A rumor started by an activist

It all started after Xi Jinping returned from Samarkand, where the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was held on September 16. After this date, the current Chinese leader kept a low profile. On Wednesday, September 21, several tweets in Mandarin announce the rumor of a coup, in particular that of an anonymous account whose pseudonym is “New Highland Vision”: it explains that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the former president and prime minister, has assumed power on September 14 and “removed the military power” of Xi. When he found out, he “returned [from Samarcande] in Beijing on the 16th, he was arrested at the airport and put in a detention center.”

The journalist Zhao Lanjian also explains, on September 22, that a large part of the flights leaving China were canceled. Different newspapers reported this news but of these are run by Chinese exiles living in the United States is openly hostile to the communist power in Beijing and is happy to follow conspiracy theories, particularly by airing information about QAnon and Trump,.

But the buzz really took off on September 23, after the spread of images of military vehicles on Twitter by Jennifer Zeng, a Chinese human rights activist, arrested several times in China and exiled in the United States. In particular, she practices Falun Gong, a new religion persecuted in China and strongly linked to the ancient times that was founded by followers of this cult.

“PLA military vehicles [l’armée Chinoise] headed for Beijing on September 22, […] in a procession of 80 kilometers. Meanwhile, rumor has it that Xi Jinping was arrested after Communist Party dignitaries stripped him of his leadership of the PLA,” Jennifer Zeng China’s tweet reads, then adds to the rumor, though Jennifer Zeng denies the existence of a coup in the same Twitter thread.

The Beijing reporter for a German news organization quickly sent out a Twitter thread mockingly reporting the “coup” as actual news. A prominent TV news channel in India then published the “story” of the German reporter as “breaking news.

According to Kenton Thibaut, a China specialist at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, the false story is one of the first instances of a tweet that “calls into question the core of the Chinese political system” to become viral. According to Thibaut, tensions with Indians residing in disputed Chinese border regions during the previous week may have led to the Indian TV channel picking up the tweet.

It serves as a textbook example of how quickly and widely misinformation spreads online. Beyond that, it serves as another evidence of how powerful a combination political unrest, unrestrained speculating, and social media posts can be.