Late Saturday afternoon, rumors began to populate the internet that a coup was afoot in China which began based on travel data.
Beijing Closed to Flights, Trains, and Buses
Flight cancellations abounded on Saturday, September 24, 2022 in and out of Beijing prompting questions about what was happening. Tracking site, FlightRadar24.com, showed limited activity throughout the afternoon (though it would have been late night Saturday, early morning Sunday flowed in.)
Social media accounts were atwitter with reports of trains and buses into and out of the capital city being canceled as well.
— Rehan Ahmed ❤❤ (@rehan_ahmed92) September 24, 2022
Speculation grew that Chinese President, Xi Jinping had been on house arrest for some time (though he recently appeared at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation SCO summit alongside others including Russian Premier, Vladamir Putin.) The standing rumor was that top leadership in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had taken control of the city. Namely, Li Qiaoming, a senior Chinese military official had mobilized and would lead the country.
Images and video of military vehicles and personnel appeared on social media before they were quickly debunked as originally displayed in 2015. Another piece of the rumor purported to show an 80 km caravan of military vehicles but this has not been verified by date, location, or length.
Xi Jinping likely removed from Chairman of the Military Commission’s post under the shadow of a Military coup.
— Nepal Correspondence (@NepCorres) September 23, 2022
President Xi is appointed as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and was suspected to receive a third term without a probable replacement in the complicated world of Chinese politics.
Other rumors suggested that the Iranian government, facing its own political turmoil this week, was the source of the rumors looking to distract from its own demonstrations.
Since last night I analyzed close to 2000+ accounts amplifying the hashtag #chinacoup. Despite this graph not being pretty enough given the large dataset, I figured out a bunch of accounts with significantly low followers that acted as the key disseminators of the rumor. pic.twitter.com/8PtfobJ6hk
— Atandra Ray (@atandra_ray) September 25, 2022
Difficult to Verify
Rumors such as these are difficult to verify generally, but in China where outside media is limited and communications scarce, it’s even harder to verify either that something is afoot or that it is decidedly not. The only major news site to carry news of the story was Newsweek tracking similar sources as this post.
Interestingly, despite trending on Twitter (which is unavailable to Chinese citizenry), the CCP has not made any public statement either confirming or denying the coup d’etat adding further to the mystery.
Based on the verifiable travel data (flight), it does seem odd that a significant portion of greater China was without traffic. It was late in the evening in China at the time, so it’s possible that nothing is afoot at all. It’s also possible that there is a disinformation campaign in progress either in a coordinated fashion or not. Regardless, rumors on social media alone are not enough to suggest that a coup has taken place, is in progress, or is even being planned. That said, it seems odd to me that the CCP wouldn’t simply make a statement or subvert the rumors by simply producing President Xi outside his home in response to the chatter.
What do you think? Is something afoot in China? Is this a disinformation campaign? Has travel data been used before to corroborate such allegations?