An antiquated Chinese political phrase enjoyed a brief revival when it was dusted off and used by some online commentators to describe the series of events known variously as the “Wagner Group Revolt/Rebellion/Insurrection/Mutiny/etc.”
The phrase “eliminating the Emperor’s cronies” (清君侧, qīng jūn cè) refers to the removal of powerful but treacherous courtiers and officials from the ambit of a reigning emperor by another group claiming fealty to the emperor. For millennia, it has been used to justify all manner of palace coups, usurpations, and uprisings, including the Rebellion of the Seven States (154 B.C.E.) against the Han Dynasty Emperor Jing; the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763 C.E) that sought to topple the Tang Dynasty; and the Jingnan Campaign (1399-1402 C.E.), a three-year civil war between supporters of two rival Ming Dynasty claimants.
The phrase began popping up on Weibo over the weekend, following reports that troops from the Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary organization led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, were marching toward Moscow to challenge attempts by the Russian Ministry of Defense to subsume Wagner troops into its own command structure. Aware of Prigozhin’s close ties with Putin—and of Prigozhin’s long-running rivalry with top military brass, mainly Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Armed Forces Chief Valery Gerasimov—some Chinese netizens described the incident as “a real-life version of ‘eliminating the Emperor’s cronies.’”
Almost as quickly as “eliminating the Emperor’s cronies” resurfaced, the phrase was being search-censored on Weibo, with queries yielding the error message, “In accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and government policies, search results cannot be displayed.” In response, many Weibo users tried to circumvent censorship by using variants of the phrase, such as “eliminating the cronies of the Emperor” (清君之侧, qīng jūn zhī cè) and “policy of eliminating the Emperor’s cronies” (清君策, qīng jūn cè).
Some on social media speculated that the censorship reflected the Chinese leadership’s deep-seated fears about similar challenges to its own power base. Others noted that the term had been censored on Weibo in the past, most notably in June of 2015. A CDT Chinese post dated June 19, 2015 included the phrase in a list of “sensitive words” from that month. At that time, the phrase was likely verboten because it was being used by citizens online to ridicule “the delusion of a healthy balance of power within the CCP.”
At present, the Wagner Group Revolt seems to have wound down: Russian authorities have said that they will not press charges against Prigozhin or his followers, Wagner Group troops fighting in Ukraine have been commanded to turn over their heavy weaponry to the Russian military, and Prigozhin is reportedly in exile in Belarus. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have called the brief insurrection Moscow’s “internal affair,” with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state media weighing in to affirm China’s general support for Russia.
Yet those anodyne statements may mask deeper uncertainties among the Chinese leadership about the potential for further instability in Russia, the future of the Sino-Russian “no-limits partnership,” and even control of the military at home.
Reporting on reactions from the Chinese government, state media, academics, and pundits, Foreign Policy’s James Palmer analyzed what the Wagner revolt might bode for China:
Putin’s apparently weakened position is inconvenient for China, which is why the limited coverage within the country has tended to emphasize Russia’s supposed stability and blame the West for suggesting otherwise. My bet is that Russian diplomats will tell their Chinese colleagues the Prigozhin affair was a CIA plot—a narrative that will fall on receptive ears. Yet the chaotic events will add extra weight to the arguments of a small group of intellectuals who say Beijing may have blundered by putting so many chips on Moscow.
But that could be an increasingly risky argument. It takes little to trigger paranoid leaders such as Xi. Given how closely Xi has aligned himself with Putin, the Russian leader’s weakness won’t lead to Beijing disassociating from Moscow—unless Putin falls completely. Rather, it’s likely Chinese officials and pundits will double down on rhetorical support for Russia out of fear that criticism of Putin could be read as criticism of Xi.
But the Wagner insurrection could also ultimately increase cautiousness in Beijing. Despite pro-Russian propaganda, many Chinese institutions have hedged their bets when it comes to how far they’re willing to go to help Moscow. After all, a country where it isn’t certain who will be in charge on Monday is not a reliable partner. [Source]