Politics & Law
20th CCP congress implications for Taiwan
Chinese president Xi Jinping has been confirmed for an unprecedented third term in power. What do Xi’s remarks at the CCP’s 20th national congress and the stacking of the standing committee of the politburo with his loyalists mean for Taiwan?
By Brian Hioe
Chinese President Xi Jinping was confirmed for a third term over the weekend at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which began on Sunday, 16 October and lasted for a week. This takes place after limits for the number of terms that a Chinese president can serve were removed at the 19th National Congress in late 2017. Likewise, the results of the 20th National Congress resulted in the standing committee of the politburo being stacked with Xi loyalists, further consolidating Xi’s power.
The meeting began with Xi offering a warning about Taiwan as part of his opening remarks. In these remarks, Xi claimed that reunification between Taiwan and China was a historical inevitability. Xi stated that "The wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s reunification. Complete reunification of our country must be realized, and it can without a doubt be realized.”
Likewise, Xi stated that the use of force was still on the table for unifying Taiwan and China. According to Xi, “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force. We reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”
Reunification with Taiwan was framed as part of a broader project of “national rejuvenation.” The term “national rejuvenation” is increasingly a buzzword used by Xi to refer to his project of strengthening Chinese national power and reshaping the international order with China at the lead. But by devoting a significant part of his opening comments to discussing Taiwan, Xi was likely emphasizing that he views unification with Taiwan as a significant part of his political mandate as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.
Xi’s comments, of course, take place in the wake of unprecedented live-fire drills that took place closer to Taiwan than during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1995-1996. The live-fire drills were carried out by China to register displeasure with the visit to Taiwan of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in August, as the first visit to Taiwan by a US Speaker of the House in a quarter decade.
Since Xi’s comments on Taiwan, there have been warnings by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that China may have accelerated its timeline for unification with Taiwan. Likewise, Admiral Michael Gilday, the chief of US naval operations, stated that he sought to be prepared for a Taiwan contingency as soon as next year.
When asked about these comments, Taiwan’s National Security Bureau director-general, Chen Ming-tong said that the Chinese government might use force to try and bring Taiwan to the negotiating table as soon as next year. Nevertheless, Chen declined to give a more specific answer about whether he was referring to an invasion scenario or other possibility.
One notes that relatively little about Xi’s comments were new, with Xi having emphasized in a January 2019 speech that the use of force was still on the table for unification with Taiwan. While Xi’s comments in January 2019 provoked significant blowback in Taiwan, there was relatively little reaction in Taiwan to Xi’s comments at the start of the 20th National Congress. This may be because Xi’s comments did not reflect anything that was not already known.
In his comments, even as statements about the use of force were honed in on, Xi largely sought to tout progress on the Taiwan question. Rather unconvincingly, Xi claimed as part of his comments that the majority of Taiwanese supported unification, except for a small number of separatist diehards–successive elections lost by the KMT in past years seem to prove otherwise. Xi may have been aiming to claim progress made on Taiwan as part of his justification for another term in power.
However, it may be the case that US government officials interpret Xi’s comments as representing a hardening of the Chinese line on Taiwan. This could be a misreading or their views could be coloured by access to intelligence that civilians do not have. For its part, China may have hoped to maintain a stable outlook until after the 20th National Congress–with the 20th National Congress scheduled to take place this month, China did not escalate air incursions around Taiwan as it did last year around the time of Chinese National Day on 1 October.
Either way, the final results of the 20th National People’s Congress a week later should be worrying for Taiwan. As was mostly predicted ahead of time, Xi was confirmed for a third term. But to this extent, the seven-member standing committee of the Politburo removed voices that might prove a check on Xi’s actions.
This includes Premier Li Keqiang, who was seen as more market-friendly and potentially critical of Xi. Li will remain in his position for a few months before his replacement. On the other hand, Shanghai party chief Li Qiang will take the number two position in the standing committee, suggesting that he could potentially be the next premier.
Li’s appointment suggests that Xi intends to shrug off popular opinion, seeing as Li’s image has suffered because he is seen as responsible for the rolling lockdowns that Shanghai went through as a result of adherence to a zero Covid policy. Xi may value personal loyalty above all else.
As if to indicate that Xi intends to keep power centralized in his hands and around those close to him, vice premier Hu Chunhua has also been removed from the Politburo. Hu was originally seen as a potential successor to Xi as president, but his removal continues the pattern of Xi removing potential successors possibly with the view that they could challenge him.
Indeed, what attracted the most international headlines about the 20th National Congress proved an incident in which Xi’s predecessor as president, Hu Jintao, appeared to be removed from the proceedings by two men in suits. In the course of this, Xi mostly ignores Hu dispassionately as he is being removed from the room in a series of events that were caught on film.
While state-run media claims that Hu was feeling unwell, this has led to some speculation as to whether Xi staged the events deliberately as a show of force, or whether this was to prevent Hu voting against Xi’s preferred policy directives. Hu’s removal from the 20th National Congress has also been interpreted symbolically as the death knell for earlier periods in which the Chinese president sought to share power with peers, such as during the Hu presidency. Hu’s removal has led to a great deal of discussion in the media and elsewhere in Taiwan.
The centralization of power in the hands of a small number of Xi loyalists could prove dangerous to Taiwan. In the absence of dissenting views, Xi may only hear views on Taiwan that he wishes to hear, increasing the odds of actions being taken on inaccurate perceptions of Taiwan. Even if the CCP is far from a democracy, power shared among multiple leaders decreases the odds of irrational action per the wisdom of the crowd.
Indeed, an invasion of Taiwan would be catastrophic for China, with assessments of the number of dead in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. The economic fallout would be enormous, in consideration of the size of the Chinese and Taiwanese economies and how they are interlinked, such as with regard to Chinese dependence on Taiwanese semiconductors. Yet a small number of individuals holding power may be encouraged to consider such irrational action through irrational decision-making or because their interests diverge from that of Chinese society as a whole, such as if a crisis proves useful for holding onto power or expanding power. In this sense, Xi’s consolidation of power at the 20th National Congress may prove dangerous for Taiwan going forward.
Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom