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Murmurs of discontent grow in China as Xi Jinping poised for third term

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Rumours are swirling amid a febrile atmosphere, but the brutal leader has worked hard to remove any sort of real opposition (PHOTO /Courtesy)

BEIJING —Tensions are ramping up in China ahead of the major Communist Party Congress next month that is expected to see President Xi Jinping given an unprecedented third term in office.

The increasingly febrile atmosphere coincided with unusual rumours swirling online on Saturday about a potential military coup that had led to Mr Xi being put under house arrest. However, the reports were quickly debunked.

“There’s no evidence of a coup in China and no reason to even slightly think there has been one,” said Nathan Ruser, a China-focused researcher at the think-tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “Xi’s decade of intense political consolidation behind him can’t be overturned by a missed meeting or a few cancelled flights.”

Mr Xi – head of the Central Military Commission – has spent his first two terms removing opponents through a sweeping anti-corruption campaign and various crackdowns. He has also consolidated his grip on power by cherry-picking army leaders.

This week alone saw the culmination of the biggest purge in China’s security apparatus in years, ahead of a political reshuffle expected at the congress, slated to start on October 16. No Chinese leader has been given a third term in power since Chairman Mao Zedong.

The most prominent among those recently sent to jail was former justice minister Fu Zhenghua, who on Thursday received a suspended death sentence for corruption that will be commuted to life in prison after two years, without parole, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Mr Fu had himself been responsible for purging one of China’s highest-ranking politicians, Zhou Yongkang, the former head of the security services and once a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s top decision-making body.

A day before Mr Fu’s sentencing, three former police chiefs were jailed for corruption.

Gong Daoan, Deng Huilin and Liu Xinyun, the former police chiefs of Shanghai, Chongqing and Shanxi province, respectively, had been accused of disloyalty to Mr Xi and of being part of a “political clique” led by former public security vice-minister Sun Lijun, who also received a suspended death sentence on Friday.

It is just the latest instalment in Mr Xi’s aggressive anti-corruption campaign, which he has said is aimed at both “tigers and flies,” meaning party leaders and rank-and-file officials.

Critics say he has used the campaign to cement his position of power, but the wide pick up of yesterday’s baseless “palace coup” rumours shows that many think – or perhaps want others to think – that he may still be vulnerable.

“The spread of the rumour indicates belief in its plausibility,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow focused on US-China relations at the National University of Singapore.

The online chatter mirrored a similar misinformation campaign in 2012 during the months leading to Mr Xi being promoted to party secretary and eventually president of the country.

Similar unverified videos of tanks and military vehicles purportedly headed to Beijing had circulated on social media then too.

The campaign coincided with the fall from grace of political star Bo Xilai, the Communist Party head of Chongqing who was once slated for one of the country’s top positions. Mr Bo was later convicted for corruption and sentenced to life in prison.

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