Since late Friday rumors of a possible coup attempt in China stormed social media platforms across the world. Within 24 hours the rumors had become so prevalent that #ChinaCoup and related hashtags were trending on Twitter and news of the alleged coup went viral. The first reports spoke of long columns of People’s Liberation Army vehicles seen on the highways in and around Beijing. These were followed up by posts indicating airspace in and around Beijing and other areas of China had been shut down and all train and bus travel was cancelled. On Saturday, the real meat and potatoes of the coup rumors broke out stating ‘reliable sources’ had confirmed that Chinese President Xi Jinping was under house arrest and the military had taken over control of the city.
Naturally, credible news sources reported nothing of a coup or the arrest of Jinping. Mainly because there was no coup attempt and Jinping was not under house arrest. Social media took the unconfirmed news and ran with it, as social media has a tendency of doing. The topic grew in popularity throughout Saturday and only started to diminish once it became clear through credible sources that nothing of concern was going on in Beijing or elsewhere in China.
As for what started the rumors, this remains unknown for now. Events last week inside of China could’ve inspired the rather creative coup news. While Jinping was at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Uzbekistan, two former ministers were sentenced to death and four other former officials were sentenced to life in prison as part of Jinping’s heavy-handed crackdown on corruption in Chinese politics. This was followed by Jinping departing from public view upon his return from the SCO meeting.
The China coup rumors highlight an ever-present danger of social media. It does not take very much for erroneous news to trend and appear legitimate. In these times of uncertainty, widespread fake news and rumors on social media could result in violence, damage, and loss of life in the real world. Or worse. Unfortunately, social media is also quite vulnerable to being weaponized by a nation-state for its own needs and interests. As we move deeper into the 2020s, the probability of this happening at some point in the near future is increasing.
On Sunday, the West African nation of Guinea was rocked by a coup and subsequent military takeover. The target of the coup, President Alpha Conde, has been deposed and is now being held under guard by the military. Several hours of gunfire occurred around the capital city of Conakry following the coup. Yet by the evening, Conde’s supporters had either laid down their arms or fled the city. Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the coup leader has moved rapidly to consolidate his hold on power. In an announcement on state television, Doumbouya said “the Guinean personalization of political life is over. We will no longer entrust politics to one man, we will entrust it to the people.” This statement was a direct reference to the rampant corruption Conte was notorious for.
After meeting with government ministers earlier today, Doumbouya said a new “union” government will be formed in a matter of weeks and promised there will be no witch hunt against members of the former government. By many accounts from people on the ground in Guinea, the coup is being welcomed by many citizens. Conde was an unpopular leader whose corruption and desire for absolute power is well documented. Protests against his rule broke out in 2019 following a Conde-supported constitutional referendum leading to civil unrest and violence. Over 100 people reportedly were killed in these clashes.
Internationally though, Doumbouya’s action has brought on condemnation and threats of sanctions. The United Nations, Western African Union and regional ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) have all come out against the coup and called for a return to civilian rule. Africa has seen a number of coups in recent years and political stability is becoming less common. There is an economic element to this weekend’s action as well. Guinea holds the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, as well as untapped iron ore deposits. The markets for both bauxite and iron ore have been rattled as uncertainty over the political situation in Guinea is increasing considerably. This has the potential to cast a shadow over iron ore trading especially for a period of time.
The United States has introduced trade sanctions against Myanmar in the aftermath of security forces killing thirty-eight protesters on Wednesday. Specifically, the sanctions will be made up of export controls against Myanmar’s Defense Ministry, and a trio of corporations that have close ties to the military. As the military continues to escalate the situation on the ground in Myanmar, the US sanctions signal that Washington is moving to set an example for the international community to follow. The State Department has also called on China to use its close relationship with Myanmar to restore calm and return the civilian government to power. The chances of Beijing doing this are remote, however. In February, China blocked the UN Security Council from issuing a condemnation of the coup and at the moment, China has more pressing issues to deal with.
Inside of Myanmar there is growing anxiety about what the weekend will bring. Activists and protest groups have defiantly promised to continue demonstrations even in the face of security forces firing live ammunition at protesters. Meanwhile, as Myanmar braces for a potentially violent weekend, the military government is indifferent about blowback from the international community over the February coup. ‘We are used to sanctions, and we survived,’ Myanmar’s deputy military chief Soe Win informed the UN envoy to Myanmar last month. It will be interesting to see if the military government’s stance changes following the bloody day of protests this week.
This weekend has seen the crackdown in Myanmar intensify. Police and security forces confronted peaceful demonstrators at protest sites across the country. The use of lethal force has been reported by the UN human rights office, which claims to have received the information from highly credible sources. In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, a large demonstration was confronted by police. The police charged at unarmed, non-violent protesters and when the protesters moved to reassemble, the police started using more heavy-handed tactics, according to an Al Jazeera journalist who witnessed the scene. Reports of police opening fire at other points in Yangon were soon published on social media outlets. Although most news outlets were unable to confirm the claims, or number of casualties, the UN human rights office has reported that at least 18 protesters have been killed over the weekend.
On the geopolitical front, Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations was fired by the nation’s military rulers after a speech he gave at the UN General Assembly on Friday. Tun urged the international community to use “any means necessary to take action” against the military to “ restore the democracy.” Tun concluded his remarks by saying he was representing Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted government.
Protests blossomed in Myanmar on Monday despite stern threats by the military government to use lethal force against citizens who join a nationwide general strike. Businesses, factories and markets were closed in response to the call for a general strike across Myanmar. On Sunday evening, the military government made a public announcement on state television. “It is found that the protesters have raised their incitement towards riot and anarchy mob on the day of 22 February. Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life.” The government also blames criminals for inciting violence during past demonstrations which led the deaths of three protesters at the hands of security forces.
Reports, photographs and video from Monday’s protests show crowd numbers in the tens of thousands across Myanmar’s largest cities. The police have moved in to break up a number of anti-military demonstrations and have arrested upwards of 200 people. The military appears to have held back on its promise to use lethal force, but the reason for that decision remains a mystery. It’s very possible that increasing outside scrutiny is compelling the military government to restrain police and security forces.
An example of the growing foreign attention on Myanmar is the US warning that it will seek “against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken released this statement on Twitter. A State Department spokesperson released this follow up statement on Twitter shortly thereafter. “We call on the military to stop violence, release all those unjustly detained, cease attacks on journalists and activists, and respect the will of the people.”