In his New Year address, Chinese President Xi Jinping claimed that Taiwan would “surely be reunified” with China.
Against the backdrop of Beijing’s increased military posturing in the Taiwan Strait, some Western journalists are framing his remarks as an overt and direct threat against Taiwan. They argue that Xi’s rhetoric validates concerns about a potential invasion.
This framing misses the point and overlooks the domestic political context of his speech.
Xi also celebrated the successes of the Chinese nation and economy, while acknowledging the economic struggles of the people. Rather than threatening Taiwan, this rhetoric is intended to protect Xi’s regime.
Western governments draw their legitimacy from a popular mandate, which is established through elections. The legitimacy of the Communist Party of China or CCP to govern is also premised on a mandate.
But instead of through elections, it is established through the Party’s record of ensuring continued economic prosperity and national success.
In this context, Xi’s emphasis on economic growth and the nation should be considered an example of political theatre portraying the CCP in a carefully curated way for a Chinese audience.
Following the Cultural Revolution, which had disastrous consequences for China’s people and economy, and Mao’s death in 1976, the CCP re-established its legitimacy on the twin pillars of economic prosperity and nationalism.
Former leader Deng Xiaoping secured the economic pillar in the 1980s through reforms that raised 800 million people out of poverty.
The nationalist pillar involved retelling Chinese history. The regime emphasized historical achievements and commemorated national struggles, portraying the CCP as the vanguard of the nation.
Under Mao, Japan’s invasion of China in the Second Sino-Japanese War which later became the Chinese theatre of the Second World War, was presented as an ideological class struggle.
According to this narrative, both Chinese and Japanese workers were exploited by militaristic bourgeois elites. Nowadays, the nationalist narrative presents Japan as a foreign oppressor that China resisted and overcame under the CCP’s leadership.
Such narratives of history have resulted in a contemporary Chinese nationalism sensitive to what it considers renewed victimization of the nation. This includes international opposition to reunification with Taiwan, a historic province of China.
As the economy slows, the CCP has become increasingly reliant on the nationalist pillar to retain its legitimacy. This limits the CCP’s options in disputes as it must act in such a way that upholds its nationalist credentials.
In 2005, China saw large anti-Japanese protests triggered by Tokyo’s downplaying of the atrocities it committed during its invasion of China.
Within the context of 11.4% economic growth, the CCP shut down public transport to block protesters from arriving in the largest cities and officials condemned the demonstrations.
But by 2012, China’s economic growth had slowed to 7.9%.
At the time, the CCP was notably silent during similarly large anti-Japanese protests over the Senkaku Islands known as the Diaoyu Islands in China – a territorial dispute in the East China Sea associated with the Second Sino-Japanese War.
China’s nationalist movement criticized the Party for being too soft on Japan, prompting then Vice-President Xi to publicly renounce Tokyo’s territorial claim. This constitutes acquiescence to nationalist pressure, with Xi securing the nationalist pillar while the economic one faltered.
His mention of national reunification with Taiwan in his New Year address is in keeping with the CCP’s increased reliance on nationalism to secure legitimacy as China’s economy slows.
This can also explain Beijing’s posturing in the Taiwan Strait.
China experienced 3% economic growth in 2022, the lowest since Deng’s reforms and excluding the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. So to deflect scrutiny, the CCP is intensifying its embrace of brinkmanship in the Taiwan Strait.
Ultimately, it is unlikely to culminate in a war considering how an invasion could backfire on the CCP. In the event of an unsuccessful invasion, the Party would suffer significant damage to its reputation.
Even a successful but prolonged conflict with heavy losses would have a similar effect.
Either way, the near-certain economic consequences, such as sanctions and embargoes, would topple the Party’s economic pillar.
More interesting than Xi’s talk of reunification is his admission of the economic struggles of the Chinese people. In his address, he explained that “some people had difficulty finding jobs and meeting basic needs.”
There is very little precedent for acknowledging the shortcomings of the CCP’s delivery of prosperity. Doing so contradicts the economic pillar.
It is particularly odd given that the CCP has recently suppressed negative commentaries on China’s economy to avoid damaging public confidence in its stewardship.
As brinkmanship in the Taiwan Strait reaches its limits, it seems the Party is shifting away from an over-dependence on the nationalist pillar.
Instead, it may be pursuing a less immediately risky strategy, acknowledging economic issues while emphasizing the potential for growth under the CCP. This approach would be a safer way to maintain the Party’s legitimacy than escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Xi’s speech indicates a changing nuance in CCP discourse – one that may become increasingly apparent during the coming year.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.