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Why Xi Jinping sees ‘dangerous storms’ ahead for China: Taiwan, U.S. tensions and zero-covid

On the domestic and global fronts, Xi’s next term looks to be loaded with challenges.

Hear more from this conversation between Tom Nagorski and Bates Gill:

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bates Gill: Two big takeaways for me. I was really struck with how much it was about the past, looking back, particularly on his 10 years in office. Basically, trying to make the case almost as if he needed to convince people within the party, and possibly beyond, that he surely deserved to have that third mandate and probably to stay in power indefinitely.

Secondly, this was not a speech about policy initiatives or about what kind of responses were going to be needed for the various challenges going forward, but was really deeply steeped in ideology. It just really reinforces that he is the ideologue-in-chief, in addition to his other roles in China, and the need that he sees to bolster that element of the party’s authority and mandate to rule.

The question I have is: Will this generate a degree of greater competence or a little bit more surefootedness going forward as a result? It strikes me that maybe Xi still feels the need to make sure that everyone around him is going to be as loyal as possible in order to face the challenges that he did speak about going ahead.

What does he mean? I think he sees it on at least two fronts. The economy slowing, and without any inclination to try and introduce market reform, to try and improve economic prospects going forward. I think he recognizes that that element of the Chinese business model, that performance narrative is going to be flagging. And then of course abroad, I think he definitely sees, rightly, that the international community in many respects is souring on its relationship with China. We see that that’s going to affect them economically, as the United States and other advanced economies rethink their economic relationship with China.

I suppose the biggest challenge going forward, that he recognizes clearly, is his intention to extend Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Of course, that will not happen easily. Both at home and abroad, he sees a lot of problems going forward.

But most importantly, I think this notion of legitimacy is critical. The party wishes to be respected, even appreciated by the international community, and most importantly, to be left alone and not be potentially undermined or threatened by outside powers, such as the United States. That is a visceral concern — the visceral fear that they continue to have, which was clear from Xi Jinping’s speech.

So it’s going to be the pursuit of these big objectives. Taiwan would come under the big objective of sovereignty, to ultimately, in their view, regain territories, not just Taiwan, but of course in the East China Sea, South China Sea, across the Himalayas with India, regain territory that they believe have been wrongfully taken away from China. Again, that is not going to happen without a fight, I suspect, and Xi knows that.

So no, I guess to answer the reader’s question, I do not see much in the way of accommodation or seeking a middle ground with the United States, particularly across those six major objectives which I described in the book.

We have a summit meeting likely coming up between President [Joe] Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Bali G20 Summit, so we can have some hope that there will be an effort on the two sides to at least put up some guardrails and ways to at least make sure that this competition does not spiral out of control. But to be very honest, I think the political atmosphere in the two capitals is not very conducive at this point to either one of them finding much in the way of compromise. We’re in for more of the same, more difficulty, more tension for U.S.-China relations going forward.

We know that President Biden himself called for a “moonshot” to try and address and even cure some forms of cancer. This would seem an obvious area where the two could work together. Others might be on nonproliferation and maybe down the road, the two sides can start talking about some forms of arms control, or at least introducing some greater stability and predictability into their strategic relationship. But while these all seem to make a lot of sense, I just think that the political atmosphere right now is going to make it very difficult for them to make much progress in any of these areas.

If it’s a split between the Senate and the House, then I think that will make it a little more difficult for Congress to pass more hawkish laws for the President to sign. But I don’t think, even if the Republicans gain both houses, that we’re going to see any dramatic change in the relations with China. I don’t think there’s going to be an opportunity to really drive things in a much worse direction.

I was encouraged by some language coming out of Xi Jinping’s opening speech last week, which appeared to be somewhat more moderate on the question of Taiwan. It definitely left open the door for China’s hope or China’s desire, as he put it, for a peaceful resolution. Of course that didn’t forego the possibility of using force, but the language that he used there was interesting in saying that the use of force is really intended to deter and prevent a small handful of pro-independence persons on Taiwan and their foreign supporters. That’s a slightly more moderate way of saying, “We know that not everybody on Taiwan wants to be independent,” although the data would suggest otherwise. But at least that was somewhat more moderate in that use of language. It wasn’t a saber-rattling message at Taiwan in this particular instance.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not fought in a real war since the late 1970s, early 1980s, the border war with Vietnam. Which as you might recall, did not go well for the PLA. That said, they have enormous advantages, not to mention proximity, and of course have built up a formidable military machine opposite Taiwan. My thinking on this, though, is that a D-Day style traditional invasion, a kinetic attack against Taiwan really is absolutely a last resort. They have developed a range of other options, well short of that type of scenario, which I think can be very powerful to deter the independence leanings of Taiwan and basically help maintain the status quo.

We could be another five, 10 years or longer in this limbo. What the situation needs, in all honesty, is to allow time, hopefully, to reach the peaceable outcomes one way or another that I think we all want to see there.

That raises huge questions, and it explains why, at least for now, Xi Jinping is urging the country to become more self-reliant, to invest more in domestic innovation at home, rather than relying on foreign technologies and inputs, and to rely on this enormous domestic market of China’s 1.4 billion people, which was useful for consumer-led growth and also huge in terms of development of big data and AI and all the rest.

It’s a gamble, and we’ll see where they are because the many challenges — demographic challenges, problems with employment, widening gaps in terms of education and wealth between rural and urban parts of China — these are huge problems and relying on the state to get them all solved doesn’t strike me as all that wise. I think they know that they’re going to have two, three, four, maybe even more years of economic problems going forward.

There’s also the issue of political fallibility. This leadership is not going to readily acknowledge a mistake, and any sort of lifting of this is therefore probably going to happen in a very slow and even experimental way. Maybe some of the changes we’ve recently seen in Hong Kong are an indicator of what might happen, maybe starting small.

And the Chinese have still got a big problem with covid. Their elderly population is really vulnerable, and their domestic vaccines have not proven all that effective, especially against emergent variants. So there’s every possibility that if they went too far, too fast in lifting this policy, new variants would quickly develop within the Chinese population and could not only threaten China, but threaten the world once again. This is not an easy decision, and I suspect it’s only going to be very incremental, step by step. We shouldn’t expect it to be lifted until probably the second quarter of next year.

I think his demise, if that’s the right word, would be a political one, rather than having to do with physical ailments. And the real question is whether the ambitious persons within the party who may not like the policies he’s taken, or may see their opportunities for leadership lost or stolen, might find a way to undermine Xi’s leadership. But there’s no indication right now that there’s anyone prepared to do that. We should expect Xi Jinping to be around for five, 10 years and maybe longer.

But no matter how you look at it, this was a very awkward moment for a party that is all about scripted events. And at a minimum, symbolically, if not intentionally, it was the demise of any sort of alternative political factionalism to threaten Xi Jinping’s leadership.

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