Chinese President Xi Jinping, pressured to resign by Li Keqiang and other Politburo members, is escorted to a coastal luxury villa while Li, along with other top civilian and military officials, forms a new government in Beijing.
The scene from a recently published book is imaginary, but its author, retired British diplomat Roger Garside, told VOA he believed the scenario was not outside the realm of possibility.
“I believe the U.S. and its allies have great economic superiority compared with China, and we’ve got to use that to bring about regime change in China,” Garside said in a phone interview from his home in London.
"We can’t decide from outside how China shall be governed, but as I show in my book, there are those within China who want to change, and we can work to help those people. We can work to bring about conditions in which they can achieve what they want.”
Garside’s view of what is possible in China is rooted in his own experience during three years as the principal analyst of Chinese internal politics at the British Embassy in Beijing. Before that, he served as a British officer in Hong Kong, watching escapees risking their lives to cross the border into Hong Kong in 1958.
Other experts have their doubts about his scenario, however.
Andrew Nathan, who teaches at Columbia University in New York, pointed out that there are measures in place designed to prevent precisely the kind of unauthorized conversations among Chinese Politburo members that would permit the coordination of a coup.
“I cannot imagine how a Li Keqiang and a Wang Yang would have a chance for a secret, unauthorized conversation or how they could get away with contacting a third or a fourth person secretly,” Nathan said in an email exchange.
What might be possible, he said, is something like what happened when then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was deposed in 1964.
In that scenario, Nathan said, “a given [Politburo] member speaks up in a [Politburo or [Politburo standing committee] meeting and attacks Xi, hoping, without having prearranged it, that others will join in. … But such a move would be extremely risky. What could make it happen? I guess not a U.S. initiative, but something extremely tragic in China.”
Garside maintains that if China’s second-ranking official Li and like-minded leaders were to challenge Xi, they would not be without public support.
“At the start of my tour of duty as the British Embassy’s principal analyst of China’s internal politics, I had taken a decision, known only to myself, that I would work on the assumption that in terms of political values and instincts, the similarities between the Chinese people and ‘us’ were primary, and the differences were secondary,” Garside recounts in his book, China Coup.
“Events over my three-year posting confirmed me in this view,” Garside continues, describing citizen initiatives that struck him as “the most spectacular illustration of their values and their resolve to shape their own future.”
More than 40 years have passed, but Garside still remembers an exchange he had with Wei Jingsheng, a leading figure from what became known as the Democracy Wall movement.
“He fully expected the Party to act against him and other democracy activists, so I asked him: why do you persist?”
Wei’s answer, he wrote in the book, was, “Because I know that democracy is the future of China and if I speak out now, there is a possibility that I can hasten the day when the Chinese people will enjoy democracy.”
That spirit, Garside notes, was seen again at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen protests when “on a single day, 18 May, six million people joined demonstrations in 132 cities across the country.”
The author also pointed to the reaction upon the death last year of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who was silenced and reprimanded for warning of the coronavirus. “Millions of people went online to demand freedom of expression, and messages expressing grief and outrage were viewed one billion times,” he said.
Creative thinking urged
Garside told VOA he recognized that developing the right strategy to deal with today’s China was “the greatest challenge to international statesmanship in my lifetime, and I’m 83 years old.”
He said he believed creative thinking could help, and that’s why he combined fiction with analysis. In the end, he said he believed it would be best to leave the future for the Chinese people – including the current political elite – to write their own history.
"You’ll notice my book stopped short of predicting how the transition will succeed or fail — I dealt with day one of the new regime, then we sign off,” he said.