Why the Wagner Group's mutiny is Xi Jinping's worst nightmare

Nobody turned up to defend Moscow or Putin, and the same scenario would play out in China.
A commentary by Chen Pokong
2023.07.05
Why the Wagner Group's mutiny is Xi Jinping's worst nightmare Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects honor guards during a welcoming ceremony in Moscow, 2023.
Credit: Anatoliy Zhdanov/Kommersant Photo via Reuters

At the end of last month, Russia's Wagner Group grabbed international headlines as the drama of its short-lived mutiny played out on screens around the world. 

Faced with the threat of violent rebellion, Putin – a strongman who has ruled Russian politics with a rod of iron for 23 years – was pushed into the humiliating position of seeking reconciliation to end this challenge to his authority. 

All of this has ramifications for Beijing, for the Chinese leadership in Zhongnanhai, and for Xi Jinping himself. 

First of all, the rebellion took place against the backdrop of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, it is possible that if Xi Jinping were to launch a military invasion of Taiwan, that the People's Liberation Army wouldn't be totally obedient.

Even more so than Russia's, China's army will likely be made up of only children from the poorest backgrounds who could leave things in disarray when they are asked to bear up under the huge psychological pressure of modern warfare and amid widespread official corruption.

Russian law enforcement officers stand guard in Red Square in Moscow, 2022. Credit: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters
Russian law enforcement officers stand guard in Red Square in Moscow, 2022. Credit: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

As soon as that war starts going badly, the likelihood of mutiny or a military coup will rise. 

Secondly, Prigozhin was an old friend and confidant of Putin's going back more than 30 years. Prigozhin personally led his troops on the front lines, taking part in a nasty and difficult war, where he was basically Putin's man on the ground. But all that changed when it started to look as if there was no hope of victory. 

Like Putin, Xi Jinping is a strongman ruler, whose faction consolidated its ruling position after a fierce struggle for power at the 20th party congress in October 2022. 

This means that any future challenge to Xi must come from within his own faction. This is how things tend to go, both in terms of human nature, and historical outcomes. 

Xi Jinping has no way to defend against that, and can't ever afford to ignore the possibility that there are hidden dangers lurking in the "Xi family army." 

Army melts away

What's more, when Prigozhin rebelled, he didn't mess around, but went all out in a march on Moscow, knowing very well that you have to go straight to the top and confront the big boss. 

If a similar rebellion were to happen in China, it would target Zhongnanhai and Xi Jinping himself. Every action meets with an equal and opposite reaction. There's always a chance of shooting yourself in the foot. Those who play with fire will end up burning themselves. 

When the Wagner Group headed for Moscow, it did so quickly and with no resistance, as if it marched through no man's land. It meant with scant obstruction along the way, advancing rapidly until it was just 200 kilometers away from Moscow, howling at the gates of the capital. 

The Russian army, police and security forces seemed to have melted away into nothing, so nobody showed up to protect Putin from their guns. 

Xi Jinping once said of the collapse of the former Soviet Union that 'nobody was man enough" to protect the regime.

Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don to return to their base, Russia, in 2023. Credit: Reuters
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don to return to their base, Russia, in 2023. Credit: Reuters

Putin was only able to mobilize six fighters for low-altitude bombardment, but even they were shot down by the Wagner troops. 

There was no support for Putin among ordinary Russians, either. In fact, they welcomed the Wagner army with open arms. 

What could they be thinking? Perhaps they'd suffered under Putin for long enough. 

If Prigozhin hadn't gone along with the mediation attempt -- whether real or fake -- by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, it is entirely possible that he would have gotten all the way to Moscow. 

Moscow was vulnerable, not just because of the lack of military defense, but also because of the attitude of its people. 

Public support in question

And Putin clearly knew this. After all, he quickly agreed to reconcile and immediately promised to pardon Prigozhin and Wagner once Lukashenko stepped in. It must have been devastating for him to realize how little anyone cared, in the army or in the general population. 

This effect would be even more keenly felt in China. Just look at how many sensitive words and banned search words the authorities under Xi have banned from the Chinese internet, to the point where people joke that you can't use Chinese at all. 

The power of the Chinese Communist Party leadership is inversely proportional to the amount of public support it enjoys. The greater the power, the greater the loss of popular support. 

The reason is simple. People these days don't tend to want to live under single-party states. Added to that, we now have dictatorship by a single faction and by one man. This goes against the spirit of the times, against the will of the people, and is extreme and unacceptable. 

Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army fire a mortar during a live-fire military exercise in Anhui province, China in 2021. Credit: CNS photo via Reuters
Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army fire a mortar during a live-fire military exercise in Anhui province, China in 2021. Credit: CNS photo via Reuters

Do you think they don't know this? 

There are plenty of people who believe that the day Xi Jinping launches an invasion of Taiwan will be the day he signs the regime's death warrant. I broadly agree with them.

Because the People's Liberation Army is no match for the U.S. armed forces. And people in China have suffered long enough under the Communist Party, and they've suffered long enough under Xi. 

War will throw China into turmoil. There will be an unprecedented coming together of anti-communist and anti-Xi forces, and opposition voices will become louder than ever, both in and outside the party. 

What will Xi or his faction be able to do to stem that tide? They will crumble beneath the sheer force of popular feeling. 

That's why the Russian mutiny is Xi Jinping's worst nightmare. 

 

A man watches a CCTV news broadcast about joint military operations near Taiwan by the Chinese People's Liberation Army's Eastern Theatre Command, at a shopping center in Beijing, 2022. Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters
A man watches a CCTV news broadcast about joint military operations near Taiwan by the Chinese People's Liberation Army's Eastern Theatre Command, at a shopping center in Beijing, 2022. Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Chen Pokong, who was an organizer of the 1989 democracy protests in China, is a U.S.-based political commentator, author, television pundit and columnist for Radio Free Asia Mandarin. The views expressed here are Chen’s own and do not reflect the position of Radio Free Asia.

Translated by Luisetta MudieEdited by Paul Eckert.

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