The big event during our summer break from publishing was China’s drills around Taiwan following Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.
- Besides the obvious implications of China’s efforts to change the ‘status quo’ with Taiwan, what struck me was the batch of commentaries that came out before, during, and after the drills.
These commentaries tell you, in turn, the drills’ aims were:
- To head off Taiwan from declaring independence; to coerce Taiwan into ‘peaceful reunification’; to deter the U.S. from defending Taiwan from an invasion; to rehearse an invasion or blockade; to change the ‘status quo’ in the Taiwan Strait; to prevent the U.S. from continuing what China sees as an erosion of the ‘One China Policy; some or all of these - or something else besides.
As for the question will China invade?
- They answer: yes, no, maybe.
And if China invades, when?
- They say that could be in eighteen months, two years, 2025, 2030, or 2049 (I may have missed a few dates), or whenever Xi Jinping decides it’s time.
Perplexed yet? No? Then also consider their take on Xi Jinping’s reasoning. Here are just two:
- Mr. Xi will invade Taiwan to keep his pledge to reunify China to secure his place along with Mao and Deng as one of China’s great (greatest?) leader.
- Or, he will not invade Taiwan because the costs to China would be too high (would it destroy decades of economic progress?) and the risks to Mr. Xi and the Party too great (what happens to confidence in them if the PLA loses and tosses them out?).
All by way of saying, when it comes to China and Taiwan, nobody knows.
- Except Xi Jinping, and he’s not talking.
This makes commentators on China easy targets (trust me, as one of them, I know).
- But, in fairness, China does present a unique problem.
We know next to nothing about China’s elite politics and decision-making processes.
- Most importantly, since he is China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping is just as opaque.
I have often written here that to understand what’s happening in China and what will happen keep two tenets in mind.
- Take Mr. Xi at his word – he means it.
- Never underestimate the impact of Mr. Xi’s own ambitions.
But these can only take us so far.
- Hidden from us are Mr. Xi’s motivations, ways of coming to a particular decision on an issue, and willingness to accept the opinions of senior cadre – to mention only a few.
- Dazzlingly contradictory interpretations of China’s – and Mr. Xi’s – intentions.
That means when you’re reading a commentary by an esteemed expert, be cautious.
- Most of the time, the conclusion vigorously asserted and soundly reasoned is based, no doubt, on a lot of speculation – informed speculation but speculation still.
Just how much speculation is admirably set forth in ‘Xi Jinping’s Radical Secrecy: It makes China harder to predict and the world more dangerous,’ by Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute, where he writes:
- ‘Almost anything China does has global fallout these days.’
- ‘But its internal debates and its decision-making processes are almost entirely hidden.’
All this reminds of the passage from the Analects of Confucius:
- ‘To know what you know and what you don’t not know - that is true knowledge.’ [‘知之为知之,不知为不知,是知也’]
- An excellent maxim for analyzing China.
More from Richard McGregor below.
Great new resource for understanding China:
Our friends at The China Project (formerly SupChina) produce these terrific video interviews with leading China experts who analyze issues vital to the decisions of CEOs and institutional investors. Check out the latest:
- ‘Geopolitical Risks of the Chinese Equity Market’
- ‘How PRC's Taiwan Blockade Will Disrupt Global Semiconductor Industry’
- ‘China's Show of Force & Fury: Military Drills Encircling Taiwan, Explained’
1 | ‘The world’s most powerful man’
In a world of political hardball, investigative reporting, and tabloids, we know a lot (if not always accurate or unspun) about world leaders, especially those in functioning democracies.
- Not so with Xi Jinping.
‘Xi Jinping has never given a press conference,’ writes Richard McGregor.
- ‘He is the head of China’s ruling Communist Party—a colossal, sprawling political machine with 96.7 million members—yet he does not have a press secretary.’
- ‘His office does not preannounce his domestic travel or visitor log.’
- ‘He does not tweet.’
‘What are billed by the official media as important speeches are typically not released until months after Xi has delivered them in closed forums.’
- ‘Even then, the published versions can be pallid reworkings of the documents that have been circulated internally and, very occasionally, leaked.’
‘The secretiveness of Beijing’s ruling party might once have been dismissed as a mere eccentricity, fodder for an industry of intelligence analysts and academic Pekingologists to sort through for clues about top-level machinations.’
- ‘But with Xi now often described, without hyperbole, as the “world’s most powerful man,” and on the verge of winning a norm-breaking third term later this year at the party congress, Beijing’s radical opacity has real-world consequences.’
‘How would Xi, for example, make any decision to invade Taiwan?’
- ‘What would happen if the military pushed back?’
- ‘Could the politburo vote to overrule Xi?’
- ‘Does Xi feel pressure from the public to take the island?’
‘Almost anything China does has global fallout these days.’
- ‘But its internal debates and its decision-making processes are almost entirely hidden.’
And ‘heaven help any Chinese journalist who might manage to publish a real-time account of Xi’s decision making.’
- ‘At best, they would be out of a job. More likely, they would end up behind bars.’
‘Foreigners can simply be banned from entering the country ever again.’
2 | ‘Shining a flashlight into the corner of a dark room’
‘Xi Jinping’s personal story alone makes him a gripping subject,’ writes Richard McGregor.
- ‘In Xi’s case, we know more about him than we do about previous Chinese leaders, in part because, before rising to the party’s top ranks, he talked about his upbringing.’
- ‘The party itself has published a series of reverent oral histories on his years as a sent-down youth and as an official in the provinces.’
‘All of that can be illuminating as far as it goes—like shining a flashlight into the corner of a dark room and no farther.’
- ‘These glimpses from his past encase his life in an official mythology and largely obscure, or avoid altogether, crucial questions about how he came to power and survived at turning points in his career.’
- ‘But the real business of Chinese politics, together with the rest of Xi’s story, remains securely locked down.’
3 | 'A mystery to this day'
From reading his speeches and watching his actions, we can piece together an outline of how Mr. Xi consolidated power.
- How he came to power in the first place is matter of speculation – but important to know as a baseline if we are to understand how much Mr. Xi has changed China’s politics.
‘None of the local or foreign books about him can explain with clarity how the party chose Xi as the nominated successor to Hu Jintao in 2007,’ writes Richard McGregor.
- ‘Was it because Xi was considered independent of the party’s main competing factions?’
- ‘Did his revolutionary family roots swing the vote in his favor?’
- ‘Did a council of party elders support him? Who makes up the council of elders, anyway? Do they ever meet, in fact?’
‘Formally, the head of the Communist Party in China is chosen by the Central Committee, the roughly 370-member body that acts as kind of the expanded board of directors of China, Inc.’
- ‘But there is no recorded instance of the committee ever exercising any genuine scrutiny of the party, let alone tussling over who should be leader.’
‘Nor do any writings about Xi illuminate whatever mandate he was given when he assumed leadership of the party in late 2012, amid evident political turmoil.’
- ‘That mystery is a live issue to this day.’
‘Xi’s harshness shocked many in the system, and still does.’
- ‘What deals did he have to cut to get his way?’
‘The Communist Party, after all, is a political machine before anything else.’
- ‘If he went way past what his patrons had wanted him to do, we are, again, none the wiser.’
4 | ‘Like detectives in a dangerous, suspicious neighborhood’
Like those who airbrushed fallen Soviet leaders from the lineup at a May Day parade, Mr. Xi and his minions have rewritten Chinese history with narratives that burnish Mr. Xi and the Chinese the Chinese Communist Party.
- And while these provide hints of Mr. Xi’s intentions, they otherwise obscure our understanding how he runs China.
‘Under Xi, the battle over history has gone to another level, both in service of his own career and to ensure that the party can dictate whatever version of events it needs to align with current policy,’ writes Richard McGregor.
- ‘Formal restrictions on research are also getting tighter. Over the past decade or so, China has been restricting access to its archives.’
- ‘The tightening of access to sources, official and otherwise, has run in parallel with the introduction of a new criminal offense of “historical nihilism,” which can be wheeled out to suppress any version of the past that the party doesn’t like.’
- ‘With so many obstacles in their way, historians of modern China, foreign and local, are like detectives in a dangerous, suspicious neighborhood.’
‘Decades may pass before the archives are accessible again or another time when the Chinese themselves, who are either unable or afraid to talk, start to publish memoirs and the like.’
- ‘Without that opening up, we will have little opportunity to gain deep insight into the inner workings of Xi’s rule.’
‘By then, our assessments will be academic:’
- ‘Xi’s grand ambitions for China will have played out—with wildly unpredictable results, for his country and for the rest of the world.’
Until then, expect to continue to face dazzlingly contradictory interpretations of China’s – and Mr. Xi’s – intentions.
- Each based on a lot of speculation – informed speculation but speculation nonetheless.