Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Anatomy of a debunked China coup rumour

  • Fake news about a coup in Beijing last week offered those who followed it a rare glimpse in real time into how malicious falsehoods are spread quickly online around the world

The symbiosis of social media and journalism is truly scary. A few judiciously placed tweets were enough to start the global rumour mill going last week that a coup had been staged against President Xi Jinping.

By last weekend, you had Newsweek magazine quoting Gordon Chang, author of the famously questionable The Coming Collapse of China, first published more than two decades ago, as “an expert on China”.

First, the article quoted his tweet: “Whatever happened inside the #Chinese military during the last three days – evidently something unusual occurred – tells us there is turbulence inside the senior #CCP leadership.”

Then, he was quoted as saying: “There’s been a lot of smoke, that says there is a fire somewhere. We don’t think that there has actually been a coup, but at this point there have been some extremely troubling developments at the top of the Communist Party as well as the top of the People’s Liberation Army, which reports to the party, so something is terribly wrong.”

As evidence, Chang cited “the country’s decision to cancel 60 per cent of its flights on Wednesday … [and] a widely shared video posted on Twitter is also reported to show a line of military vehicles up to 80 kilometres long heading into Beijing amid reports of a military coup”.

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However, according to the Chinese financial news site,, the cancellation rates of the preceding three weeks were respectively 60.1 per cent, 69 per cent and 64.1 per cent. “Logically”, a British tech company that specialises in fact-checking and analysing disinformation, has determined that the video clip of a military convoy was actually taken from last year.

Jennifer Zeng, a Falun Gong blogger based in New York, initially made many tweets about the coup rumour as well as reporting it on her “Inconvenient Truths” channel, but now insists she was only reporting – not spreading – it.

As a public service, Marc Owen Jones, a researcher at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, traced India TV, a Hindi news channel based in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, as the most prolific spreader of the rumour via Twitter.

By the time Newsweek caught on, it was quoting Indian politician Subramanian Swamy: “[The] leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were supposed to have removed Xi from the party’s in-charge of army. Then house arrest followed. So goes the rumour.”

Everyone said it was a rumour but did their best to spread it!