Ian Williams Ian Williams

Xi Jinping and the Chinese rumour mill

The Beijing political rumour mill has gone into overdrive in recent weeks, seizing upon every nuance and reading between every line for signs of the impending downfall of ‘Xi dada’ (Big Daddy Xi). All kinds of stories are being circulated about President Xi Jinping’s health, with reports over squabbling over his likely successor. Chinese premier Li Keqiang is being tipped.

The predicted replacement of Xi by Li has its roots in differences on the economy and Covid-19, so the rumours go – and there does appear to be a split of sorts. In his public pronouncements Xi has doubled down on zero-Covid above all else. He has made little mention of China’s economic hardships, urging officials to stick with his Covid elimination strategy as a mark of loyalty. Meanwhile, Li has taken to stressing the problems that Xi avoids talking about, and has reportedly issued grim warnings about the damage during meetings with officials. Li is nominally in charge of the economy but has been side-lined for much of Xi’s rule. Recent moves to reverse Xi’s policies and ease up on action against technology firms and bloated property companies and generally pump more money into the economy are seen as a re-assertion of Li’s influence.

There has been more open criticism online than at any time since Covid first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019

One prominent overseas Chinese YouTube host even had a date for Li’s takeover, claiming Xi would ‘abdicate’ peacefully on May 20. That deadline has come and gone, but there will no doubt be another rumour to explain why.

There is a pattern with these rumours. Most emerge first via overseas Chinese sources. This is a well-established system for nurturing political intrigue – discontented officials push rumours out via the Chinese diaspora, where they are amplified and then come back into China and generate gossip and further rumour.

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