Chinese officials can no longer refer to the “peaceful rise” of China, for those days are long gone….reports Asian Lite News
Chairman Xi Jinping is not in the mood to let anything dampen his aggressive posturing as he prepares to take on as much of the world as he needs to. He is employing the full spectrum of diplomatic, military, trade and influence operations to advance his and Chinese interests around the world.
Whether it is corruption within the highest ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the death of a former premier, or stiffening resistance from democratic neighbours, Xi is not backing down.
On October 29, during an interview given at the 10th Beijing Xiangshan Forum, Lieutenant General He Lei, former vice president of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Sciences, blamed US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for not attending.
Worryingly, he then proceeded to blatantly threaten Taiwan: “Once the Chinese government is forced to use force to resolve the Taiwan question, it will be a war for reunification, a just and legitimate war supported and participated in by the Chinese people, and a war to crush foreign interference.”
The general continued: “In this war, the PLA will live up to the expectations and trust of the party and the people, fight bravely under unified command, and achieve complete reunification of the motherland with the least casualties, minimal losses and lowest cost, winning a great victory in the final battle of the PLA’s war and achieving complete national reunification.”
Although Taiwan has no ambition to attack China, but simply to preserve its democratic way of life, Lieutenant General He blamed the Taiwanese government for provoking hostilities, as well as Taiwan independence secessionist forces and external interfering forces. He added that, after the war, China would bring the stubborn secessionist elements to justice and punish them severely.
The PLA general’s words are quite contrary to Xi Jinping’s purported policy of “peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait”. Perhaps the real lesson is that what Xi and his acolytes say in public is vastly different to the true ambitions they harbour in their breasts. This PLA general was not speaking his own mind – no high-ranking PLA officer would dare – but what is clearly CCP policy. Beijing is intent on crushing “foreign interference” in any effort to help defend Taiwan against any PLA attack.
He also declared the South China Sea as a “core interest” of China’s, putting it in a similar category as Taiwan. That means Beijing would be prepared to go to war over it. This makes a mockery of China’s halfhearted talks over a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, something started in 1992 and still with no conclusion in sight.
The ambitions of China are seen in frequent incidents involving military assets. Both the USA and Philippines are engaging in concerted effort to publicize these dangerous actions by the PLA in the air or on the sea. One was a Chinese J-11 flying perilously close to a B-52 bomber flying in international airspace over the South China Sea on the night of 24 October. The US Indo-Pacific Command complained that the J-11 approached at an “uncontrolled excessive speed, flying below, in front of, and within 10 feet of the B-52, putting both aircraft in danger of a collision”.
Ely Ratner, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, commented, “The PLA’s unsafe intercept of a lawfully operating US B-52 aircraft this week is the latest example of a centralized, concerted campaign by the PLA to engage in coercive and risky operational behaviour in international airspace.”
This was not a one-off, for between fall 2021 and fall 2023, the USA documented more than 180 instances of coercive and risky Chinese intercepts against American aircraft, plus approximately 100 more dangerous intercepts against allied aircraft. A week prior to the B-52 encounter, a China Coast Guard vessel deliberately collided with a Philippine Coast Guard vessel and resupply boat near Second Thomas Shoal. China is not backing down, because it believes its time has come.
Chinese officials can no longer refer to the “peaceful rise” of China, for those days are long gone. The message is clear – if China cannot get what it wants peacefully, then it is willing to use coercion or force. It does not matter who it offends – see how it has scorned the Philippines after it decided to stand up for its legitimate rights. China now wants to be reckoned with on its own terms.
It is not just the PLA testing its mettle. China itself is in the midst of a struggle – against the West and to win public opinion at home. Xi and the CCP hugely tarnished their image thanks to draconian lockdowns during COVID-19, and then an uncontrolled plague of death after the government inexplicably reversed policy overnight.
Against this sullen background of economic and social unease, the sudden death of former premier Li Keqiang by heart attack in Shanghai on 27 October adds to Xi’s burden.
Li represented an opposing faction against Xi – the Communist Youth League. Although Li had already retired, nonetheless Xi must handle the death and funeral of the 68-year-old with care. An obituary notice jointly issued by various CCP bodies extolled Li as “an excellent CCP member, a time-tested and loyal communist soldier and an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, statesman and leader of the party and the state”.
Simultaneously, the obituary heaped praise on Xi. “Faced with complicated domestic and international situations, under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, Li followed the general principle of pursuing progress while ensuring stability, maintained strategic resolve, and improved approaches to macro-regulation with greater attention to anticipatory adjustments, fine-tuning and targeted regulation.”
The obituary urged “turning grief into strength to rally more closely around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, and to strive in unity for fully building a strong country and achieving national rejuvenation through a Chinese path to modernization”. Interestingly, the obituary’s English version downplayed many of the slogans and references – to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, for example – that the Chinese one included.
Joseph Torigian, Assistant Professor at the School of International Service at the American University in Washington DC, noted: “The passing of a senior Chinese political figure can be a complicated and challenging moment for the leadership. Protests after the deaths of popular former deputies like Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang show why.”
There was widespread popular support for Zhou, which led to a violent protest in Tiananmen Square in April 1976. Similarly, Hu’s death in April 1989 ultimately led to the deadly Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in June of that year.
Torigian added, “The timing of Li’s death is not good for the leadership. Some people already think it was an assassination, while others will likely conclude that Li’s death was somehow related to disappointment with how Xi treated him or the general direction of the country. The Hu Jintao incident (when he was ignominiously escorted from the 20th National Congress in October 2022), which I think was wrongly interpreted, has already created a sense that Xi does not respect retired officials with status within the party.”
“Li’s death also comes at a time of…’malaise’ in China,” Torigian pointed out. “With the economy facing headwinds, a tense political atmosphere, high-level purges and important upcoming meetings, Zhongnanhai already had a lot on its plate. Moreover, Li Keqiang had developed a reputation as someone less ideological and more moderate than Xi Jinping. And Li was someone who could have been leader. That makes him somewhat similar to Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang.”
Torigian thinks this is a somewhat ironic outcome, given that he does not believe Li Keqiang “ever openly, or even carefully, resisted Xi. Li, a typical product of the party, was careful to toe the line, no matter what he thought personally.”
The American University professor pointed out that Li was not removed from the leadership or humiliated like Hu was. “For now, I think we have a poor sense of how the population will react. And, perhaps most importantly, we should remember China’s security apparatus is much savvier now than it was when Hu Yaobang died.”
Xi will likely lead public mourning and normal party funeral rituals. He could allow some public grief, but he will surely try to steward Li’s legacy and crush any attempts to mobilize any opposition. Remember that Xi has already amassed some experience, as he successfully navigated the death of former leader Jiang Zemin on November 30, 2022.
China is also undergoing an unsettling changeover of ministers because of corruption. On October 24, state media finally announced what everyone already knew, that the foreign and defence ministers – Qin Gang and Li Shangfu respectively – had been axed. It only took Beijing several months to publicize it.
It is unclear who will take over the defence portfolio, but Lyle Morris, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, believes that General Liu Zhenli Liu will be picked. He is currently the chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and Morris said: “Li is a trusted confidant of Xi, and likely received Li’s endorsement to Xi to be the next minister of defence. At 59, he is the youngest member of the CMC.”
General Liu is a career army officer, and was once commander of the PLA Army. Morris noted: “Liu’s combat experience, which Xi places a premium on, coupled with a career spent protecting Beijing, likely helped gain Xi’s confidence as a political reliability candidate for the next minister of defence.”
Quite apart from the corruption that riddles the CCP and Chinese society, the national economy continues to stutter. Compared to a year earlier, foreign direct investment in China fell 34 per cent to RMB 72.8 billion (USD10 billion) by September 2023. This was the biggest decline since monthly figures became available in 2014. The outlook is grim too if China thinks it can raise itself up by its bootstraps as much of the world begins to shun it.
According to micro-census data, 450-500 million Chinese in the workforce between the ages of 18 and 65 never attended a single day of high school. That is an astounding 70 per cent of the labour force that is uneducated! Such statistics reveal China is one of the least-educated middle-income nations in the world, and the danger is real that it will remain trapped there.
Despite being the world’s second-largest economy and largest exporter, China’s growth has relied upon mostly unskilled labour. However, as unskilled workers are squeezed out of work (especially as multinationals shift production to places with cheaper labour, and as production automation rises), this will hamper economic growth, lead to higher unemployment and may eventually accentuate social unrest.
Already, informal blue-collar employment is the fastest-growing sector in China, growing from 33 per cent in 2004 to 56 per cent by 2017. China claimed in 2020 to have eliminated poverty, yet at that time some 600 million Chinese still had a per capita income of less than USD140 per month.
Faced with such a dire future of perhaps hundreds of millions of Chinese un- or underemployed, Xi might be tempted to resort to nationalism or ill-advised expeditionary actions to maintain legitimacy. Because Western politicians and intelligence communities know so little about Xi and what he really thinks, it is difficult to predict what he will do in any given situation.
The stakes are high and with mercurial leaders like Xi, one does not know if he will think clearly or act on pure emotion. All the signals are that Xi has taken Taiwan on as his personal mission, its “unification” essential to his dream of great rejuvenation for the Chinese nation. Like Putin with Ukraine, Xi is unlikely to apply hard logic when it comes to Taiwan. (ANI)