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Xi’s Political Considerations and the Risk of Cross-Strait Crisis in 2022

There is an increased probability of cross-strait crisis in 2022. 

◎ There is an increased probability of cross-strait crisis in 2022.


Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have ramped up cross-strait “reunification” rhetoric in recent years. Last year, Xi and the CCP followed rhetoric with increased military maneuvers, making 950 incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone (compared with 380 in 2020) from January to late December 2021, according to Bloomberg-compiled data from the Republic of China’s defense ministry. 

The People’s Republic of China’s increased belligerence and rhetoric are validating the assessment of experts and scholars who warn that the 2020s is a “decade of concern” or “decade of maximum danger” where there is a strong likelihood of a cross straits invasion. Observers have offered various possible invasion dates, including from 2022, after 2022, by 2024, by 2027, etc. 

Our own observations and analysis of CCP factional politics leads us to concur with the “decade of concern/maximum danger” hypothesis. As for possible PRC “reunification” (invasion or other novel takeover methods) dates, we previously considered 2022 to be less likely in lieu of several factors, the most important of which is Xi’s political considerations in securing a third term at the 20th Party Congress. 

Recent developments, however, have us re-evaluating the risk of a cross-strait crisis breaking out this year:

The ‘disappearance’ of Liu Yazhou
In the morning of Dec. 19, Bi Ruxie, a “second generation red” (紅二代) writer based in America, cited a friend in Beijing as saying that former People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) general Liu Yazhou and his brother Liu Yawei, director of the China Program at The Carter Center, had been arrested in Beijing and Guangzhou respectively. Bi circulated his information on the overseas Chinese dissident website Beijing Spring and other Chinese language blogs. Later that evening, Bi noted in a clarification he is seeking further confirmation about Liu Yazhou’s arrest from his Beijing friend while Liu Yawei is currently in America.

On Dec. 30, the Chinese language edition of Vision Times published an interview with Australian-based Chinese dissident and jurist Yuan Hongbing about Liu Yazhou’s situation. Yuan said that the Xi Jinping authorities had placed Liu under “internal control” (内控) for the moment with the outcome of his case still uncertain, according to Party insiders familiar with the matter. 

Yuan added that Liu had been targeted at this time for two reasons. First, Liu had been expressing great dissatisfaction about Xi since his retirement in 2017 at various princeling public gatherings. Previously, Liu had been very supportive of Xi as both men had similar ideas about nationalism, militarism, preserving the regime, and CCP global domination. Liu and the princelings also once believed then that Xi was on their side given his strong “red” roots. Second, Liu had been saying at princeling gatherings that Xi lacks the ability to lead the CCP to victory in a “decisive battle” over Taiwan where the regime’s fortunes are at stake, and requested “a change of commander-in-chief.” 

Party insiders told Yuan that many princelings have been speaking up on behalf of Liu Yazhou through “writing letters and making their opinions known” after he was placed under “control.” 

Yuan Hongbing believes that Liu Yazhou’s argument is representative of the view held by core princeling families, i.e. Xi Jinping’s performance over the past decade marks him as unsuitable to be the commander-in-chief, especially if the CCP is to wage a “decisive battle” against the United States for global domination. Party princelings on the whole also do not regard Xi as having “quan wei” (prestige and authority) on par with that of Mao Zedong. Hence, the princelings are actively promoting the view that Xi Jinping is unfit to serve another term at the 20th Party Congress. Liu Yazhou appears to have expressed the “replace Xi” sentiment from the perspective of the Taiwan problem. 

‘Independence’ warnings and ‘reunification’ talk
On Dec. 29, PRC Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said that while China will do its best to seek “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, “if separatist forces in Taiwan seeking independence provoke, exert force or even break through any red line, we will have to take drastic measures.” 

Ma added that provocation by “pro-independence forces” and “external intervention” could become “sharper and more intense” in the following months, with the situation in the Taiwan Strait becoming “more complex and severe” in 2022. 

In his New Year address on Jan. 1, Xi Jinping said, “The complete reunification of our motherland is an aspiration shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” This was the first time that Xi mentioned the topic of “reunification” in a New Year address.

Xi also made an effort to establish his “close connection” with the Chinese people in his speech, including: 

  • “Every time I visit people in their homes, I would ask if they have any more difficulties, and I would remember everything my folks have to share with me.”
  • “The concerns of the people are what I always care about, and the aspirations of the people are what I always strive for. Having worked in the countryside myself, I know precisely what poverty feels like.” 

Our take
1. Liu Yazhou, 70, has a reputation as a hawk, a militarist, a nationalist, a brilliant, prolific writer and lecturer, and for promoting “U.S.-style democracy” and “reform.” Pro-democracy dissidents in China, however, observed that Liu’s view of democracy is not liberal at all. In a 2005 essay titled “Liu Yazhou and the Dangers of Militarism on the Mainland,” then-leading public intellectual Wang Yi (founding pastor of the Early Rain Covenant Church) concluded after a review of Liu’s work that his notion of democracy is akin to “left-wing democracy and radical democracy” rather than “right-wing democracy.” Wang added that Liu’s “basic position” is “statism, nationalism, and opportunism.” 

Liu’s hawkishness is unquestioned. He has long believed in militarism, the need to invade Taiwan to achieve “reunification,” and the inevitably of the PRC’s “great power conflict” with the U.S. to determine the global hegemon. Liu was the chief producer of the 2013 PLA National Defense University documentary “Silent Contest” (較量無聲), a hardline propaganda film which claims that the U.S. is waging a “secret battle” against the PRC. In the film, Liu argued that the “American elites” sought to “transform” the PRC through “peaceful evolution” after successfully bringing down the Soviet Union through the same method. “[The American elites] are very confident that only by approaching, engaging, and accepting China, as well as the gradual incorporation of China into the U.S.-led international and political system, will China be more favorably divided and disintegrated,” he said. 

Liu entered princeling circles with his marriage to the daughter of Li Xiannian, a founding revolutionary and former PRC president. The core princeling families seem to consider Liu as one of their own as opposed to being a mere “caretaker” (管家) or “worker” (打工仔) like all “second generation officials” (官二代) and some “second generation reds” (紅二代). This is likely because Liu holds and promotes many of the same views and values as the core princeling family class, and is a well-regarded Party intellectual. 

Liu’s alignment with the princelings and his own personal ambition mean that he does not belong to either the Xi Jinping camp or the Jiang Zemin faction. 

Party princelings made money during the Jiang faction’s era of dominance (1997 to 2012) and some even held high office. But most were unhappy with the Jiang faction—comprised largely of “second generation officials,” “fake” princelings like Jiang Zemin, and only a handful of bona fide princelings like Zeng Qinghong and Bo Xilai—for denying the bulk of them a greater say in ruling the regime, which they hold to be their “birthright.” The princelings were also displeased with the Jiang faction’s effort to accrue power and wealth by “ruling the regime through corruption” (以貪治國) owing to a sense of entitlement; in their view, only the true heirs of the “red” regime, and not the “caretakers,” have the “special privilege” of engaging in corruption and wielding power with impunity. 

Meanwhile, Liu Yazhou and other PLA elites were concerned that excessive corruption in the military would sap national strength and lead to regime collapse. Liu’s relatively slow climb up the ranks during the Jiang era suggests that he was not part of the Guo Boxiong-Xu Caihou corruption network (this does not mean that Liu did not engage in other corrupt activity); he was promoted to lieutenant general in 2003 after holding the major general rank for seven years, was appointed political commissar of the PLA National Defense University in 2009, and only became a full general in 2012 before the 18th Party Congress. Liu also reportedly remarked in a speech at the PLA National Defense University in July 2016 that the disgraced CMC vice chair Xu Caihou disclosed on his deathbed that only two generals—himself and Liu Yuan (Liu Shaoqi’s son; no relation to Liu Yazhou)—had not attempted to bribe him.  

Liu Yazhou and the princelings were initially on Xi Jinping’s side when the latter took office in 2012. They believed that Xi, a genuine princeling, would naturally be on their side and “restore” them to their rightful role as rulers of the regime. Thus, Liu supported Xi’s policies even when they sometimes ran counter to his views because he saw opportunity for further promotion and the adoption of his very hawkish positions down the line. But Xi’s early “retirement” of Liu in 2017 (Yuan Hongbing says it was over Liu’s extramarital scandal that broke in late 2016) and focus on consolidating personal power with little benefit going the princelings’ way turned Liu against Xi. 

In his interview with Vision Times, Yuan Hongbing describes Liu as ambitious and “arrogant to the extreme” (狂妄至极). Liu always felt that he was superior to Xi, and believed that himself or a handful of other younger princeling generals were more suitable to be “commander-in-chief.” 

2. Yuan Hongbing’s information about Liu Yazhou and the princelings, as well as Xi Jinping’s attempt to align himself with the masses in his New Year’s address, largely corresponds to our previous observations and analysis about the current state of factional struggle in the CCP elite. 

The princeling view that Xi is not comparable to Mao in terms of “quan wei” and is not fit to secure another term at the 20th Party Congress echoes what we have been saying for some time. In a Sept. 15 article analyzing the motivation behind Xi’s rollout of “populist” policies like “common prosperity” and the crackdown of the elites and the wealthy, we wrote that Xi “lacks legitimate political achievements and ‘quan wei’ (prestige and authority) to make a strong case for breaking the leadership tenure norms laid out by Deng Xiaoping.” And in assessing Xi’s “historical resolution,” we wrote that the document “is an effort at boosting his ‘quan wei’ via propaganda and providing ideological justification for why he should not be stopped from taking a third term” in the face of “interference from powerful factional rivals and ‘passive resistance’ from officials uncertain about Xi’s ‘quan wei’ and political longevity.” 

Liu Yazhou’s calls for Xi Jinping to be replaced as “commander-in-chief” would also partly explain why Party publications repeatedly stressed the importance of the military being loyal to Xi and the CCP ahead of the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee. Most notably, a Sept. 16 Qiushi article by the PLA Academy of Military Science’s Institute of Military Political Work called on the military to remain “absolutely loyal” to Party Central (with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core) and not challenge this “political bottom line.” The article also emphasized the importance of the Central Military Commission Chairman Responsibility System (Xi is the CMC chairman) while condemning those who engaged in factionalism and sought to split the Party like Zhang Guotao, Wang Ming, Lin Biao, the “Gang of Four,” and Jiang faction members Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang. 

What the CCP places extra emphasis on in its propaganda is often an area of particular concern. Xi’s incessant calls for the Party and the military to be “absolutely loyal” to him indicate that he is still facing resistance from some quarters despite having consolidated power to a high degree. Liu’s mutinous chatter about Xi at princeling gatherings is one example of resistance. It is possible that Xi decided to move against Liu after the Sixth Plenum because the latter likely continued making rebellious remarks despite the ample public warnings made by the Xi leadership that challenging the “absolute leadership” Party Central would not be tolerated. Liu’s uncertain fate suggests that the Xi leadership is wary of making him a “martyr” and inspiring greater pushback in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress.   

3. Xi Jinping sidelining Liu Yazhou over the two reasons provided by Yuan Hongbing’s Party sources should not be read as a sign that Xi opposes what Liu is advocating. On the contrary, the CCP leadership is united on the issue of “reunification” with Taiwan and global domination; the Party elite only disagree on how the regime’s priority agendas are to be achieved. Scholars Gabriel Collins and Andrew S. Erickson express a similar view in their paper on the “decade of maximum danger,” noting that “the PRC’s externally-facing aggression increasingly appears to be structural in nature” and “key challenges could therefore outlive Xi if he lost influence, became incapacitated, or—in a less likely scenario—was removed from power.” 

Aside from wanting to shut down direct challenges against his rule from influential individuals in the Party elite, the placing of Liu under “control” is likely also Xi’s way of signaling that he will not be pressured into seeking “reunification” with Taiwan per the schedule and strategies of others, but will instead stick to his own timetable and methods. 

Before the Liu Yazhou incident, we assessed 2022 as a possible invasion date to be less likely owing to several factors:

  • Xi’s top priorities this Party Congress year is securing a norm-breaking third term and maintaining regime stability. Given the overriding importance of elite politics at the 20th Party Congress, Xi’s focus would be completing the “rectification” of problematic areas in the regime like the political and legal affairs apparatus and the financial sector, preserving economic and financial security, as well as purging factional rivals who dare to oppose his third term bid. Launching a cross-strait invasion in a Party Congress year with sky-high political stakes is too risky for Xi given the uncertain prospects and costs of success. Worst-case scenarios include Xi unwittingly arming a military coup against his leadership if his personal sway over the PLA is insufficiently strong; defeat leading to regime collapse; or a “pyrrhic victory” where the steep cost of invasion (body count, expenses, prolonged guerilla warfare after a “successful” taking of Taipei, etc.) causes serious economic and political problems on the mainland. 
  • The PRC is in a bad shape economically, with shrinking GDP growth, spreading financial contagion stemming from the debt crisis in the property sector, growing unemployment and layoffs at Chinese big tech firms, and reduced local government revenue resulting in steep pay cuts for civil servants (see here and here). War of any sort would worsen the already dire situation, and could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back (the Chinese economy). 
  • The CCP’s “zero-Covid” policies and draconian, disorderly epidemic control measures will complicate invasion preparations and logistics. 

We believed that Xi would more likely attempt to achieve “reunification” through more aggressive influence and infiltration operations in the ROC leading up to the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election. For instance, the CCP could largely co-opt a major political party in Taiwan, find ways to rig the upcoming presidential election in the favor of its agents, and get its “Manchurian candidate(s)” to push for a “peaceful reunification” solution once they are secured in office. Beijing would also work to intimidate the Taiwanese people into accepting “reunification” by rising cross-strait tensions through belligerent rhetoric and propaganda, fighter plane incursions, and other military maneuvers. The risk of PLA invasion would rise markedly after 2024 if the CCP’s infiltration and influence operations fail to produce its desired outcome at the Taiwanese presidential election and instead sparks stronger opposition to CCP rule in Taiwan. 

In light of the Liu Yazhou incident and the CCP’s recent rhetoric on Taiwan, however, we now believe there is an increased probability of a cross-strait invasion or other forceful “reunification” attempts in 2022. Xi Jinping appears to be under pressure to prove to the princelings and other naysayers in the Party elite that he is capable enough to lead the CCP in “decisive battle” to take Taiwan, and therefore deserves to wear the “commander-in-chief” mantle for another five years. Influential Party elites are signaling that they would otherwise block Xi’s third term bid at the 20th Party Congress due to his lack of “qualification” and “worthiness” in leading the CCP to secure its priority agendas.

Xi has presently indicated by placing Liu under “control” that he will not be held to “ransom” by those who oppose his rule in the Party and will instead work towards the Party’s priority agendas at his own leisure. However, Xi’s mention of “complete reunification” in his 2022 New Year’s address can be read as both a statement of his ambition and a sign that princeling pressure is getting to him. If Xi is unable to boost his “quan wei,” deal with economic deterioration and other domestic problems, and sufficiently suppress his factional rivals in the lead up to the 20th Party Congress, he could be forced into invading Taiwan this year (even if the regime is not ready) to stay in power. In such a scenario, Xi could conceivably postpone the Party Congress under the pretext of “wartime conditions,” a move that would naturally extend his tenure and those of his allies. Victory would undoubtedly lock in Xi as “leader-for-life,” while defeat would almost certainly lead to his ouster and grave consequences for the CCP regime. 

4. From the perspective of the princelings and Xi’s other factional rivals, there is no serious downside for them as a collective (depending on the scenario, individuals who are perceived as “ringleaders” like Liu Yazhou or Zhang Gaoli still face risks) in pushing Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan in 2022. We see three possible scenarios:

Xi declines to invade
Xi Jinping’s opponents will argue that Liu Yazhou and others were right in claiming that Xi is not suitable to be commander-in-chief and that they are justified in efforts to block his third term bid. Xi could endeavor to “persuade” them to change their mind by “controlling” and severely punishing prominent individuals like Liu in seeking to “kill the chickens to scare the monkey.” But Xi cannot arrest all of his opponents without causing serious political instability, leaving him vulnerable to intra-Party “democracy” if the elites are united in voting to deny him another term. 

Xi’s opponents are only at risk as a collective if Xi Jinping does the unthinkable—arrest the elites who oppose him and pin the CCP’s ills on them, dissolves the Party, and holds democratic elections with the hopes of staying in power by riding on populism and the good will of the Chinese people. This scenario is virtually impossible as long as Xi chooses to preserve the Party. 

Xi chooses to invade, and fails
There is precedent of CCP elites launching a minor war to achieve political goals despite poor military preparation and low odds of success. For example, Deng Xiaoping’s brief Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 helped him to consolidate control over the PLA (at the expense of Hua Guofeng) and strengthen Sino-U.S. ties to the PRC’s advantage, but was otherwise a failed military campaign. Similarly, Xi’s opponents will be hoping that a short and sharp defeat over Taiwan would immediately disqualify Xi from office and enable them to regain control over the military and the regime. 

If the Party retains sufficient political legitimacy after the failed invasion and Xi’s ouster, then Xi’s opponents will likely revert back to the “collective leadership” model and consolidate their rule over the regime while blaming Xi for the CCP’s ills. While Xi’s replacement may come across as being more “liberal” and less of a “strongman,” the CCP will remain laser focused on its “reunification” agenda and work towards another invasion attempt in the future. 

If the Party loses political legitimacy and is in danger of being overthrown, Xi’s opponents could themselves dissolve the CCP and establish a “democratic” regime to win new legitimacy and stay in power. Such a regime, however, would be “old wine in new bottles” as the same elites would still be in charge. 

Xi chooses to invade, and succeeds
Nothing buries the hatchet like a good victory and the securing of a priority CCP agenda. The bulk of Xi’s opponents will duly acknowledge Xi Jinping as their supreme leader and fall in lockstep behind him. Xi’s “quan wei” could reach Mao-levels, and he would truly be unchallenged in the regime. With most of the Party elite supporting him, Xi would have no need for excessive purges, and Xi’s former opponents will have nothing to fear for pushing him to war in the first place.

5. The rising probability of a cross-strait crisis and a possible PLA invasion of Taiwan in 2022 means that Taipei, Washington, and the international community must be on their toes this year. They can consider the following measures to deter Beijing from invading:

Taiwan

  • Step up military preparedness and drills. 
  • Be on guard for cross-strait “accidents” (擦槍走火) with the PLA. In the event of an incident, work swiftly to defuse the situation with minimal provocation while remaining firm with the PRC. 
  • Be on guard for CCP incitement and subversion. Beijing could latch on to “red line” issues like “unacceptable support” for “Taiwan independence” to use as a pretext to launch an invasion. Efforts by politicians or political parties to advocate for issues that excessively push the CCP’s “red lines” should be viewed with suspicion and handled carefully; ant example is the very unusual motion by Kuomintang politicians on Dec. 22, 2021 to get the ROC central government to change Taiwan’s official name from “Republic of China” to “Republic of Taiwan.”
  • Educate civil servants, military personnel, and the general public about CCP subversion and propaganda tactics. The Taiwanese population should also be familiarized with the CCP’s history of brutalizing the Chinese people and be made aware that the Party’s ideology will not abide a free and liberal Taiwan in the event of a takeover. 
  • Strengthen ties with the U.S. and its allies, and other neighboring countries. 
  • Broaden international outreach efforts. 

United States, allied nations, and the international community

  • Strengthen ties and support for Taiwan through frequent public statements of friendship and support, diplomatic exchanges, trade deals, sale of military equipment, etc. 
  • Clearly signal intent to defend Taiwan in the event of a PLA invasion, and prepare invasion contingencies. 
  • Promptly denounce PRC efforts to bully and menace Taiwan. Be willing to apply sanctions when the situation calls for it; the CCP is aware that the PRC is heavily dependent on other countries for food and resources like oil, metal ores, and soybeans. 
  • Step up “freedom-of-navigation” operations through the Taiwan Straits and drills in the South and East China seas. 
  • Be on guard for cross-strait “accidents” with the PLA. In the event of an incident, work swiftly to defuse the situation with minimal provocation while remaining firm with the PRC. 

Beijing may have no choice but to completely rule out invasion regardless of the situation with CCP elite politics if Taipei, Washington, and the international community stand in solidarity against the PRC and its aggressive actions. Being unable to invade Taiwan means that Xi Jinping and the CCP will be denied a possible “outlet” from which the “steam” generated by internal political contradictions can be “let out.” The lack of an external “outlet” and pressure build-up ahead of the 20th Party Congress will in turn force the Party elite to confront each other more directly, raising the probability of political Black Swans emerging in China.

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