More than a week ago, Chinese leader Xi Jinping embarked on a three-day trip to Central Asia to mark his sphere of influence. He has since been out of the public eye, skipping a high-level military meeting and the annual United Nations General Assembly.
With China only weeks away from its 20th National Congress, during which Xi is set to pursue an unprecedented third term, his absence has gone on long enough to attract attention from keen political watchers, with some even speculating that he has been placed under house arrest.
By Sept. 24, Xi had become one of the top trending topics on Twitter. His name appeared on hashtags more than 42,000 times, and the term “China coup” circulated 9,300 rounds on the platform.
“New [rumor] to be checked out: Is Xi [Jinping] under house arrest in Beijing?” wrote Subramanian Swamy, a former Indian Cabinet minister and Parliament member.
Such speculation also comes as Chinese nationals noted mass flight cancellations across the country. Nearly 10,000 flights—almost two-thirds of those scheduled for the day—were called off on Sept. 24, the same day that a key conference on national defense and military reform was convened in Beijing.
Weibo, China’s top social media platform, swiftly censored discussions about the flight cancellations, declaring them to be “rumors.”
Xi, who returned to China’s capital on Sept. 16 after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a regional summit in Central Asia, didn’t appear at the Beijing meeting but relayed instructions that the armed forces should focus on preparing for war. Similarly missing was Wei Fenghe, Xi’s handpicked Chinese military general currently serving as the country’s defense minister.
His public activities since then have chiefly consisted of a greeting letter to mark the Chinese Farmers’ Harvest Festival on Sept. 22 and another the following day to China News Service, congratulating the state media outlet on the 70th anniversary of its founding.
No major Chinese media outlets or officials have come out to refute the rumors; the reach of the theory, however unsubstantiated, reflects a certain degree of anger inside the country, some analysts say.
“It’s a show of discontent,” Wang He, a U.S.-based commentator on China’s current affairs, told The Epoch Times. “It seems that people are counting to the day for him to fall from power.”
While Xi has all but secured his third term, many people haven’t reconciled with his continued stay in power, Wang said.
China analyst Gordon Chang deemed a coup to be unlikely, pointing to the lack of supporting evidence on the ground.
“I don’t think there was a coup,” Chang told The Epoch Times. “Because if there were a coup, we would see, for instance, a lot of military vehicles in the center of Beijing. There have been no reports of that. Also, there probably would be a declaration of martial law that has not occurred.
“So it seems that something is happening but we don’t know exactly what. There have been too many events that have occurred to happen without a turbulence inside the senior leadership of the Communist Party and the military.
“In the communist system, when a leader dies, generally we don’t know about it for a week or so because everyone is trying to wrangle to the top slot and subordinate positions. So that very well could be one example of something that has occurred right now. We’re just waiting but there are many possibilities.”
He also noted that the only thing that can dispel some of the speculations is if Xi comes out to speak in public.
Zhang Tianliang, a writer and author of the Chinese language book “China’s Path to Peaceful Transition,” similarly dismissed the house arrest theory.
During the past week, six senior Chinese officials, including two former Cabinet-level officials, were handed heavy sentences for corruption-related offenses, adding to a string of officials purged in the anti-graft campaign that Xi ordered after taking office in late 2012.
How would Xi have the capacity to punish them if he had lost his grip on power, Zhang stated on his show on Sept. 22.
However, whether Xi makes a public appearance holds little significance, Wang said, noting that such an extended absence from public attention isn’t unique for Xi.
To Wang, Xi’s overseas trip ahead of the Party congress was a projection of confidence.
“Without absolute assurance, this man will not take risks easily.”