The tanks didn’t roll down central Beijing. Heavy military boots didn’t patrol empty streets. At least nothing of that sort has happened yet. After days of frenetic rumours about an imminent coup here, what has come to the fore about the information going around – at least till Saturday evening – was that it was internet gossip; embellished by some old photographs of tanks taking part in a military parade in Beijing.
The government’s reaction to the spreading internet gossip was predictable: it began censoring words like ‘coup’ on Chinese websites.
But many see this as an indicator of the internecine power struggle within the secretive Communist Party of China (CPC) as it gears up for leadership change later this year.
The rumours could have been an aftershock of the sacking of the flamboyant Bo Xilai, party chief of Chongqing, a city of 30 million, following a scandal involving a former aide. Bo was tipped to get into the all-powerful nine-member standing committee of the CPC politburo; his sacking would have upset the internal party equations that were gradually falling into place in the lead-up to the leadership change.
“The loss of Bo Xilai means the whole balance of the 18th Congress succession preparations has been disturbed,” Li Weidong, an editor and commentator in Beijing told Reuters news agency on Friday. “Finding the right equilibrium will be more difficult,” he added.
High-profile Bo’s ouster is also seen as a not-so subterranean clash between the pro-free market and the relative hardliners in the CPC; during his tenure Bo had re-introduced Mao Tse-tung-era slogans and songs, broadly termed as “red” culture. Mao is revered in China as the founding father of the republic but some of his campaigns, like the Cultural Revolution, are accepted as mistakes.
Rumours were also making rounds that Zhou Yongkang, the powerful head of the Central Political and Legislative Committee had been sacked following a failed coup attempt. But Zhou’s appearance on prime time news in the government-run CCTV news channel on Friday evening suppressed the rumour, at least temporarily.
The Chinese edition of the Global Times, a state-run nationalist paper, recently also hinted at inner party tensions: "We believe the central party leadership has accelerated its work in response to the political concerns of the public… We hope they can come to a conclusion faster. The faster that we hear an authoritative voice, the clearer that society can be, and the public will be more stable. The whole of China is waiting for the party to speak,’’ it said in an article.
Some recent government decisions have also been interpreted as signs of the party wary about the transition: earlier this week, it ordered new lawyers to take an oath of loyalty to the CPC for the first time.
Even the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military mouth piece, recently called on the armed forces to remain loyal to President and CPC general secretary, Hu Jintao.
"Historical experience shows that hostile forces at home and overseas will seize the chance to make trouble when our party and our country are busy dealing with important issues," the article said.
The coup hasn’t happened but it would be difficult to deny the confusion.