HONG KONG: Chairman Xi Jinping used to have the Midas touch. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold, to China’s benefit.
However, after amassing the greatest amount of concentrated power since Mao Zedong, it seems that much of what China’s paramount leader touches is now crumbling into dust.
His Sadim touch can be seen in fraught relations with maritime neighbours, a tanking economy, intense competition with the USA, frustration amongst China’s citizens, a military that is not as combat-ready as it pretends, corruption that riddles the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) despite a decade-long anti-graft campaign, demographic challenges, an independent Taiwan that refuses to be subjugated, and pushback from around the world against China’s self-centered policies.
Bloomberg published a report on January 7 containing bombshell allegations from the US intelligence community that corruption is severely hampering People’s Liberation Army (PLA) readiness. For example, sources claimed missiles were filled with water rather than fuel, and that many silos in China’s new ballistic missile fields had hatches that did not function correctly, thus affecting their ability to launch.
The news report was scant on further detail, but there is speculation about how missiles can be “filled with water,” especially considering most Chinese ballistic missiles are solid-fueled. One possibility is that post-boost vehicles, which aim and release warheads following the burnout of intercontinental ballistic missiles, tend to be filled with liquid hypergolic propellants. These post-boost vehicles have to pass vibration tests to prove they are leak-proof, and this is probably done using nontoxic surrogate materials. Potentially, some post-boost vehicles passed their acceptance tests but were never drained and refilled with propellants when deployed by the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). Such an error might take 6-7 years to discover, until missiles undergo detailed inspections.
Referring to the claims voiced in the Bloomberg article, Lyle Morris, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asia Society Policy Institute, commented: “This only happens with the confluence of two conditions: 1) pressure to hit accelerated military modernization benchmarks (i.e. 2027) by Xi; 2) endemic corruption. Even still, it’s mind-boggling that such egregious mistakes could be found in the PLA in 2024.”
Lyle continued: “I had previously assessed that these purges and reports of corruption would not greatly affect PLA readiness, because corruption has always been a part of doing business in the PLA. But this report has me questioning that assessment. If true, this level of corruption does affect readiness, which has major implications for Xi’s military modernization goals, operational capabilities in a Taiwan contingency, and in other areas.”
American officials or the Pentagon have never made such claims before, and of course it is impossible to verify them using open-source data. However, it is patently clear that something is seriously wrong in the PLARF, with its top leadership cleared out and dozens arrested. Has the PLA invested too much too quickly in its missile force, with attendant quality problems, or have important figures been dipping their fingers in the free-flowing money flow?
Whether these alleged missile issues are true or not, one wonders what other surprises within the PLA might await Xi. He is urging it to be ready for war and to be puritanically zealous in its loyalty to him and the CCP, but those calls are falling on deaf ears.
General Charles Flynn, commander of US Army Pacific, stated at the Irregular Warfare Forum in Virginia last December that China is on a “very, very dangerous path. The PRC’s immediate goal: prepare the operational environment for seizure of Taiwan, full stop.”
General Flynn believes Xi is evaluating four things when determining whether to attack Taiwan. The first is whether China can withstand international sanctions. Next, China is “doubling down on fragmenting, fracturing and disassembling the network of the allies and partners that the US enjoys in the region”.
Thirdly, Xi is evaluating the expertise of the PLA’s leadership in being able to pull off a complex invasion of Taiwan. Fourthly, “He has to win the information war. He’s got to make sure thatChina is seen as a reliable and rising power, and the United States and the West a declining and faltering power.”
However, he is facing challenges on all these fronts. For example, top-level ministers-specifically the defense and foreign affairs – disappeared and their fate is unknown.
These “loyal” disciples were handpicked by Xi, yet his choices have proven humiliatingly fallible. There are also question marks in the minds of many Chinese over the sudden death of former premier Li Keqiang. In China, a heart attack in a swimming pool has similar connotations to a dissident falling from a building in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Xi is not now purging rivals from within the ranks of the CCP, for he is targeting the very highest levels of his own acolytes. It is the supposedly faithful followers from among his close circle that are proving unreliable and greedy. Indeed, one wonders about Xi’s mental acuity. What effect are these betrayals having on his psyche, and will he become increasingly paranoid? Greater isolation will enhance the chances of miscalculation, such as deciding to precipitate an armed conflict.
Xi worked hard to rid himself of opponents from the Communist Youth League and Shanghai Gang, but now he finds the enemies are within his own camp. Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam of The Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the USA commented: “It now seems apparent that he is committed to purging officials formerly deemed as members of his own inchoate Xi Jinping Faction. If this is the case, a thorough shakeup will be administered within the party, government and the military in the near future. This will severely hamper the ability of top-echelon government and PLA officials to function effectively, which will negatively impact the country’s direction.”
Dr. Lap continued: “While it is unlikely that Xi’s position as ‘ruler for life’ will be threatened by disgruntled fellow princelings such as General Liu Yuan, son of former state president Liu Shaoqi, the ‘unison of thought’ among the top leadership and the unquestioned fealty that Xi prizes might be jeopardized. As such, it is difficult to see significant improvements in the coming year for either the PRC’s economy or its relations with key adversaries such as the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia.”
Unfortunately, China’s hubris, through illegal and blatant disregard of others, has turned friends into enemies. For example, Xi met President Marcos of the Philippines in early 2023 and promised to resolve their differences through peaceful means.
However, what happened next? Filipino fishermen working within their exclusive economic zone were chased away by the China Coast Guard (CCG) in January 2023, the following month the CCG aimed a laser at a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, and now China routinely and violently harasses Philippine resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal.
Commodore Jay Tarriela, Chief of Coast Guard Staff for Human Resource Management in the Philippine Coast Guard, pointed out: “As a result, the Philippine government has chosen to expose China’s aggression and unlawful actions in the West Philippine Sea. It is important to clarify that the escalating tensions in the West Philippine Sea are not caused by the United States, but by the PRC.
While the US is an ally of the Philippines, it is not the root cause of the tensions. The Chinese government should avoid confusion and learn to recognize that if they were only sincere in their words and chose not to bully other countries in the South China Sea, tensions would not be as high. Unless of course, what China means on lowering tension is being submissive or not reacting to their bullying and aggressive actions!”
In Xi’s annual New Year’s Eve speech, he alluded to testing times. “On the road ahead, trials and hardships [literally, “wind and rain”] will be the norm. Some enterprises are facing pressures, some of the masses are encountering difficulties finding jobs and meeting basic needs, and some places have been hit by floods, typhoons, earthquakes or other natural disasters.”
Directly broaching negative sentiments and social issues in these speeches is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, and it is perhaps an acknowledgement that Xi is facing pressure from within the CCP. Naturally, there is no sense of culpability for either Xi or the party. In closing his speech, Xi emphasized his goal of improving people’s lives, specifically children’s education, more opportunities for young people, and elderly care. Well he might, for the elderly suffered disproportionate death rates when Xi unleashed COVID-19 in late 2022. Youth unemployment is alarmingly high, and China is the least-educated middle-income country in the world. However, he deflected responsibility for “everyone must work hard together to deal with thesematters”.
In an unpublished speech at a Politburo meeting on 21-22 December 2023, Xi apparently admitted he had repeatedly postponed the Third Plenum of the 20th Central Committee, which would otherwise normally have occurred last October.
According to sources quoted by Dr. Willy Wo-Lap, the reason for the delay was that Xi “could not offer any viable solution for the nation’s problems”. Allegedly, Xi went on to blame the 23 Politburo members and senior cadres for failing to give him good advice and for demonstrating signs of disobedience. His solution? Double down on ideological indoctrination. An intensified campaign via the National Cadre Education and Training Plan (2023-27) was launched last October to “firm hearts and forge spirits”. Cadres will perform online self-study and in-person collective training, which becomes more intensive the higher that one rises in the hierarchy.
Even lower-level officials must perform 140 hours of classes annually. This is not about gaining more effective management skills for leadership roles, but unvarnished ideological indoctrination. Of course, party members will submit to these rigorous requirements because career advancement depends on it. Indeed, it is more important to be “red” than to be an expert in one’s field, which does not bode well for China’s future governance.
Regimented indoctrination is the CCP’s solution, for Xi thinks ideological laxity is the root of his country’s problems. He is afraid of “historical nihilism”, where people lose faith in communism, as occurred in the USSR. Even private businesspeople are wasting countless hours studying the principles of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. These are the ideological trappings of a personality cult, even as the emperor is losing his luster.
Xi attempts to assure the West that China is open for business as usual, but it is not. He has turned the country into a repressive and paranoid state, creating a smothering cocoon of fear, a new “Great Wall” that battens down the hatches and protects China from foreign influence.
There has been a tremendous outflow of capital too -$50 billion last year alone – from China’s wealthy and multinational corporations. Banks are handicapped by giant entities like Evergrande, which is indebted to the tune of CNY2.4 trillion ($335 billion). No solution is in sight from omniscient Xi either, and the best they can do is stop publishing embarrassing data and warn businesspeople and journalists not to spread “negative news”.
China’s biggest headlines on New Year’s Day were Xi exchanging greetings with Putin, and designating 2024 as China-DPRK Friendship Year alongside Kim Jong-un. It is clear who China is siding with – Russia, which continues its brutal invasion of Ukraine, and North Korea, who is now supplying ballistic missiles to Putin. These are China’s friends of choice.
Another concerning revelation is that significant quantities of Chinese small arms have appeared in the hands of Hamas in Gaza. Weapons include QBZ-family assault rifles and QLZ87 automatic grenade launchers.
The Israel Defence Forces also reported stockpiles of cartridges for assault rifles, rifle telescopic sights, hi-tech listening devices and tactical military radios. Israel is investigating how Chinese equipment ended up in the hands of Hamas, though the most likely channel is via Iran. Israel and China once enjoyed close ties, but Beijing refuses to condemn Hamas and it has accused Israel of going “beyond the scope of self-defence”. Beijing must explain why Chinese weapons and military equipment are being wielded by a terrorist organization, especially since it once trained and armed Palestinian factions prior to the resumption of bilateral ties withIsrael in 1992.
China is adept at using diverse global conflicts to undermine the USA and to gain strategic footholds, but Xi is increasingly finding himself on the wrong side of history.
HONG KONG: Chairman Xi Jinping used to have the Midas touch. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold, to China’s benefit.