There's every reason to suspect that Chinese communist leader Xi Jinping has more political difficulty than he can manage. But what if he succeeds in managing these threats to his position?
Already, the claim of the past decade that China had the second-largest economy in the world has been put into a new light: China is now in severe economic decline from a level that was never as strong as the statistical manipulation claimed it to be. But Beijing still has enormous resources at the disposal of Mr. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and it's assumed that Mr. Xi will use these resources aggressively—perhaps even desperately—to defend his position under threat.
It has increasingly been speculated that a combination of any of the massive economic, social, and security crises that confront Mr. Xi may force him out of office within the coming few months and years. His attempts to stockpile food, energy, and weapons all seem less than sufficient to give him the resources he needs. That, however, shouldn't be assumed to mean that Mr. Xi would accept relegation. Quite the contrary: He believes that he has a fighting chance to preserve his position.
Even so, Chinese citizens, now robbed of their recently-found hope for a better life and their savings and many of their jobs being gone, are becoming restive. The people and a seemingly questioning faction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could be “irresistible forces” that could constrain or destroy Mr. Xi.
These pressures could stimulate Mr. Xi to offer some strategic distraction to his population and his political and military rivals. The purges of rivals that Mr. Xi undertook in recent years seem to have been unable to guarantee him real authority and security.
But what if Mr. Xi survives this unique panoply of seemingly overwhelming challenges?
What would Mr. Xi’s survival as general secretary of the CCP mean for China, the immediate region, and the global strategic balance of power?
Mr. Xi has clearly recognized the threats to his own position, and he and his faction have consistently moved to demonstrate confidence and browbeating “wolf-warrior” rhetoric in direct and proportional response to their sense of insecurity.
Taiwan: Xi's 'Ultimate Distraction'The biggest question, then, seems to be whether Mr. Xi could successfully instigate a military assault on the Republic of China (ROC)—Taiwan—to finally end the Chinese civil war and end the legitimacy of the ROC as the direct successor to the imperial government of China.
Even if he could get the bulk of the PLA to move beyond its intimidating exercises against Taiwan and across the line into actual kinetic operations, could this (1) succeed as a military operation; (2) trigger the promised support for Taiwan from Japan, the United States, and other allies (including the entire Quad); (3) be the actual trigger for the revolt at home against Mr. Xi and the CCP; or (4) cause a successful military retaliation from the ROC that would, among other things, destroy the Three Gorges Dam and thereby possibly wipe Beijing and Shanghai from the map?
The bottom line is that Mr. Xi’s “ultimate distraction”—the promise of a direct war against Taiwan—is fraught with uncertainty and could include an Indian military move against China on the Tibetan Plateau, which is key to the control of China’s most precious commodity: water.
We know that Mr. Xi has considered that, and other contingencies, by placing additional PLA resources on the Tibetan Plateau, as well as on the Vietnam border, and attempting to bully Russia into support by threatening to seize Russian Far Eastern territories, which are critical to Moscow’s access to the Pacific.
There's reason to believe that Mr. Xi has been considering alternate means of defeating Taiwan and relegating the ROC, finally, into the history books. Selective actions to neutralize or subdue Taiwan and strike a strategic blow to the United States and other Western economies would include a strategic gesture to eliminate Taiwan’s global dominance of the computer chip industry. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) has 55 percent of the global market for contract chip fabrication and almost all of the advanced processors.
This makes TSMC the most significant strategic target in the world, perhaps more critical than, say, “Wall Street,” which is now a geographically dispersed (and, more importantly, technologically dispersed since 2001) target. The United States knows this and has begun moves to give TSMC—possibly the most valuable commercial entity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond—some redundant capabilities by supporting a large new manufacturing facility in Arizona in the United States.
By July, however, the start of mass semiconductor production at the lead TSMC Arizona facility was pushed back beyond 2025 because the United States couldn't provide sufficient the skilled workers and technicians needed to move equipment into the facility, the result of consistent U.S. reductions in skilled worker education over recent decades. So the second Arizona facility—to produce three-nanometer chips and scheduled to start production in 2026—could also be delayed.
Does this mean that Mr. Xi must consider the brief window he has to set back the entire Western industrial and commercial sectors by somehow undermining TSMC facilities in Taiwan before the company gains operating traction in the United States? And if he could do so by massively degrading Western economies and technological progress, how could he do it without triggering a broader military confrontation?
Indirect—or openly attributable—factory sabotage has become a CCP hallmark in Southeast Asia and India. However, TSMC in Taiwan must be considered a hardened target, difficult to reach by subversive means.
But merely setting back Western economies—as the weaponization of COVID-19 and the related fear pandemic did—would still fail to provide the “strategic distraction” of the mainland Chinese population from the economic hardship that Mr. Xi’s Maoist policies are imposing on the country. Mr. Xi needs a dramatic gesture or, perhaps more tangibly, the ability to ensure the suppression of dissident elements of Chinese society and opposition within the PLA.
The great natural and manmade disasters that beset mainland China in 2022–23 saw such an outpouring of unhappiness and mass daily protests that overwhelmed the CCP security services’ capacity to respond. And the starvation has only just begun. Even so, Mr. Xi has survived thus far. His situation may equate to the skydiver who plunges without a parachute from an aircraft, noting halfway to the ground, “So far, so good.”
If Xi SurvivesBut assuming Mr. Xi can ride through the absolute decline that the new Maoism is imposing through an economy deprived largely of external trade, insufficient food production, and a polluted and insufficient water capacity, then what?
- Regardless of whether Mr. Xi starts a war, China in, say, two years and beyond could well be so economically debased that it wouldn't materially factor into the global economy. In other words, the negative impact of the collapse of its economy will be felt worldwide and within China, regardless of anything the West will do. Mr. Xi is clearly prepared for a Mao Zedong type of situation, which essentially manages a society preoccupied with internal squabbling to divert energies from the mass starvation and impoverishment that have already begun.
- A surviving Mr. Xi would still preside over a security apparatus that would have primacy of funding and benefits over the rest of society, and this would give Beijing a continued global nuclear blackmail capability similar to, but greater than, that of the Mao era. Still, it wouldn't give him an international war-winning capability. In this situation, the yuan would become even less globally tradable, and China’s influence would revert to something similar to the Mao era, where, for example, China was only effective in a single African state (Zimbabwe). But in this situation, Russia would revive as Beijing’s great nemesis, and Moscow would attempt to consolidate itself in the Far East, resuming dominance over North Korea, among other things.
- An impoverished China would attempt to leverage its permanent U.N. Security Council seat to make gains where it could, but, in effect, this would—along with the polarization of the world caused by the creation of the new Cold War as a result of the Russia–Ukraine war—spell the final end to any meaningful role for the United Nations. This would be a hallmark of the end of the post-World War II “rules-based world order.” But it would ensure that the United States would, as the largest surviving economy, dominate a new version of that “world order,” made up of more diverse states operating in a far-less-regulated world.
- Mr. Xi would attempt to achieve a different level of economic viability and strategic influence by devoting increased efforts to research and development in key areas: microprocessors, space dominance, and artificial intelligence. However, he must do this now through his only trusted resource: state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which now include essentially subsumed private sector initiatives. But in focusing on SOEs for political safety, he has diminished (or essentially failed to acquire) the innovative power of the private sector. Even so, China would remain technologically advanced and even—despite being fundamentally food-deprived and impoverished at a social level—globally potent.
Still, after the collapse of a viable CCP threat and capacity to intervene, the world would endure a period of significant economic dislocation, and the focus of economic and strategic power would move elsewhere.
First, Russia and India would separately and jointly be strategically empowered in new ways. Europe has shown little inclination to revive its move toward strategic strength as a unified semi-state. Still, smaller spheres of influence would clearly resume around such states as Turkey, Serbia, and Italy. There would be significant areas of regional prosperity, particularly, say, in Southeast Asia. Others may revive, but their influence globally would be contained, with the possible exception of France. The UK, freed from the European Union’s intractable malaise, has, however, begun to revive its global agenda.
A Blackened LandscapeIn other words, if Mr. Xi survives his present challenges, he still—at the end of it—presides over a blackened landscape. How long he would be able to continue in this situation is debatable, but the damage to China would possibly be as monumental as the Maoism that killed tens of millions of Chinese people.
The next question to ponder is what would happen to China if Mr. Xi fails to survive and is swallowed up by the forces of opposition, which he has unleashed within the Chinese population and the PLA.
Could the CCP act preemptively to discard him before a total collapse of the system?
Would the PLA quietly take control, keeping him and the Party as figureheads?
Would the PLA revert to the early Maoist status as a force divided into regional warlords, possibly presaging a breakup (once again) of the Chinese geography?
Just as Mr. Xi has attempted to redefine borders with the expansion of CCP claims to the South China Sea and the incorporation of Taiwan and other territories of the East China Sea or the reincorporation of much of the Russian Far East into China, it's logical to assume that the changes now coming will also include changes of borders not of Beijing’s making.
These could include changes in the control of the Tibetan Plateau, a pushback against China from the Central Asian states, a restoration of the Turkic khanates, such as those which, like Xinjiang, are presently part of China, and so on.