(Bloomberg) -- President Xi Jinping proclaimed on Sunday that Taiwan’s status should be “settled by Chinese people.” Yet he faces a tricky balancing act managing public opinion among China’s 1.4 billion people on an issue that looks set to dominate his third term.
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Xi’s vow that China can realize unification with Taiwan “without a doubt” got some of the loudest applause from the 2,400 delegates who watched his speech at the Communist Party congress in Beijing. The response reflected growing nationalistic fervor toward taking over the self-ruled island that Beijing considers its own territory.
While Xi set no timetable for Beijing to act -- as some had speculated that he might -- expectations have risen among party hawks and a patriotic public. They want a clearer and more urgent blueprint on Taiwan -- particularly after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi challenged Xi directly by visiting Taipei in August.
Xi reaffirmed on Sunday that his preference was for “peaceful” unification, but the Hong Kong-style governance model he has proposed is deeply unpopular in Taiwan. Pelosi’s visit and President Joe Biden’s pledges to defend Taiwan from any Chinese attack have also added pressure on his government to look tough, leading to unprecedented military drills around the island.
His remarks left out the pledge to “respect the current social system and way of life in Taiwan” that had been included in his last party congress report five years ago.
That’s pushing Xi toward one option -- military force -- to achieve an objective he has presented as central to China’s recovery from a “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial powers. Although an invasion -- or even a naval blockade -- would carry enormous risks for Xi, the political risks of inaction are also growing, especially if he secures a precedent-breaking third term as leader this weekend.
“If Xi doesn’t really make a move, that means that he is basically lying to the party and lying to the whole country,” said Yao-Yuan Yeh, director of the Taiwan and East Asia Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas, adding that pressure will likely be most intense from hawks within the party. “It seems like the Communist Party has no way to back off because Xi has created such a hostile narrative.”
In August, millions of Chinese citizens stayed up late to track Pelosi’s flight into Taipei, amid threats from Beijing that such a visit crossed its red lines. Hu Xijin, a former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, even suggested the Chinese military might shoot down her plane.
China’s Twitter-like Weibo service crashed for a half-hour, as people placed bets on whether she would dare to land. One Shanghai woman considered delaying her wedding in case of war, while nationalistic netizens conducted a witch hunt against celebrities who didn’t express their support for China.
That frenzy was largely stoked by Beijing, with all 50 of the top trending Weibo topics on the issue hosted by state media accounts on Aug. 3, according to a study that month by the National University of Singapore. The authorities have to be confident they have the ability to rein in nationalist demands, the authors wrote.
“Nationalism is a double-edged sword,” they said. “If government policies fail to meet the demands of feverish sentiments, the anger may be diverted to target the government.”
After the palpable disappointment when Pelosi landed, Beijing moved to calm the narrative. China’s foreign ministry called on the public to “have some patience,” while Hu said it was “normal to be disappointed.” A division of the military’s northern theater command that had written on Weibo to “prepare for battle” stopped posting.
“People’s reactions were very intense,” said Mia Yao, a 25-year-old student whose flight to southern China’s Guangdong was diverted during Pelosi’s visit. “Many people said that both sides will go to war, but I didn’t believe that. It’s not easy for war to start, as it would exhaust money and manpower.”
The Pelosi episode exposed a disconnect between the expectations of state-directed Chinese hawks on Taiwan and what Xi considers an appropriate level of response. China reacted by launching unprecedented military drills around the island, including sending a ballistic missile over Taiwan, only once Pelosi had departed.
“It’s tricky because the party’s legitimacy is, in large part, down to its claim to represent and defend China’s interests,” said Jonathan Sullivan, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, outlining how nationalism can be useful to the party. “But popular nationalists’ base desires such as, ‘Shoot down Pelosi’s plane!’ are frequently incompatible with rational policy.”
Furthermore, it’s hard to know how representative nationalist voices are of the broader public sentiment, given that Chinese social media platforms are subject to tight censorship that filters out opinions not aligned with the party’s core positions.
A survey of some 2,000 people in China by scholars from the University of British Columbia and National University of Singapore in 2020 and 2021 found that while three-quarters weren’t willing to accept a future without unification, support for more peaceful methods of achieving that goal were just as popular as war.
“A full-on war -- the worst-case scenario, which has dominated discussions in the media and the policy community, does not appear to be more favored than the other, milder policies,” the researchers wrote.
Western sanctions on Russia in the wake of its war in Ukraine might also have tempered public appetite for China to launch a similar offensive in Taiwan. President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign is taking an increasing toll on civilian lives in Ukraine, prompting Beijing to express “concern.”
Chinese popular culture has promoted the idea of people-to-people ties on both sides of the strait, through songs such as “Go to Taiwan in 2035,” which has lyrics celebrating a high-speed rail connecting Beijing to Taipei and has been sung by primary school children.
Xi’s options for keeping up pressure on Taiwan without a war are “endless,” said Elizabeth Larus, a Washington-based consultant on Asia. In addition to more aggressive war games, he could impose more embargoes on Taiwanese products, try to entice Taiwan’s diplomatic partners to switch sides and further pressure international firms to recognize Beijing over Taipei.
The danger is that as the limits for politically acceptable public discourse in China on Taiwan narrow, so too will the maneuvering space for a peaceful resolution to the issue. There are also concerns Beijing will focus attention on Taiwan to distract from other challenges, as its economy slumps under three years of a strict Covid Zero policy and a deepening property crisis.
Sullivan, the university professor, said relying on nationalist sentiment to bolster party support was a risky strategy.
“They need to be careful not to get the popular nationalists too amped up,” he said. “If the trend continues, there is going to be a more decisive tilt to talking up forced unification.”
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