Archive for July, 2022

Pelosi visit: What is China thinking?

July 31, 2022

A lot of people have written a lot of words about Nancy Pelosi’s possible upcoming visit to Taiwan. Many of these are very smart and well-informed people whose opinions I respect tremendously. However, there is one question that keeps eating away at me that almost no one is talking about: Is Xi Jinping in trouble?

Almost all the commentary has looked at the situation from the American point of view. Very little has thought much about the Chinese point of view. A lot of analysts have noted that China will make several important decisions about its leadership over the next few months, so this is a particularly sensitive time. Several have worried that Xi would find a Pelosi visit humiliating and might feel the need to act rashly. However, I have only read one column going much deeper into internal Chinese politics than that. These analysts also seem almost universally to assume that a third term for Xi Jinping is a foregone conclusion. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t quite add up to me.

Disclaimer: I am not a China specialist. I don’t know what is going on inside China.

Let me lay out a few basic assumptions that shape my thinking.

First, I assume that domestic power is Xi Jinping’s (and every other major Chinese actor’s) top priority right now. You have to secure power first before you can do anything else.

Second, Nancy Pelosi’s visit is not inherently worthy of a crisis. Members of Congress visit Taiwan all the time, and Pelosi does not have the power to decide American foreign policy. Arguably, the visits of cabinet-level figures over the past few years have been more significant than this visit. China could, if it wanted to, follow the normal script of issuing indignant complaints that everyone ignores. Instead, China has chosen to escalate the tension around this particular visit. I reiterate, this is a CHOICE.

Third, several well-informed American voices have argued that China is making threats about using force that seem more credible than normal. In many versions, this involves threatening the military plane carrying Pelosi; in others, it involves holding live fire exercises, sending fighters deeper into Taiwan’s airspace, or just ambiguous dire consequences. I am not in any position to dispute them. I’ll assume that China has, indeed, staked out a fairly extreme position, and the US military is quite concerned about Pelosi’s physical safety.

Fourth, China’s goal is to prevent Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has now invested quite a bit of political capital telling its domestic audience that it will not tolerate this visit. Its ideal outcome is that she will back down and cancel the visit.

Fifth, the chances that Pelosi will cancel the visit in the face of public Chinese pressure are pretty low. Once the visit became public, canceling it would have been a humiliating option for Pelosi. It also would give Republicans a powerful weapon to hammer Democrats with. China could get its preferred outcome, but it is highly likely that it will not. This is a risky bet for Xi and China.

Where does that leave us? China would seem to be faced with the choice of backing down or carrying through with its threats against Pelosi’s plane. Those are terrible options for the PRC. Backing down would be humiliating, but engaging would probably be worse. Pelosi will be flying on an American military plane, so threatening or attacking that plane would be directly confronting the American military. For China, this would be just about the worst way to get into a war with the USA.

China might be preparing for a war to take Taiwan, and it might assume that it will inevitably get into a military conflict with the USA. However, they should probably prefer to choose an advantageous time and place for that. Forcing down Pelosi’s plane wouldn’t gain them any Taiwanese territory. Instead, it would probably galvanize American public opinion against China and for a rapid military buildup. It could create a huge backlash against Chinese manufactured goods that would inflict severe pain on an already weak Chinese economy. That is, it would probably force the USA to prepare more aggressively, making it less likely that China would win any future war. Moreover, Chinese strategy on Taiwan has been predicated on persuading the USA to stay out of any conflict, or, failing that, to take Taiwan quickly before the US military has time to mobilize. By directly attacking a US military plane, they would be cutting Taiwan out of the equation and forcing the US to get involved. In addition, attacking a non-threatening transport plane is a pretty good way to ensure that international opinion is firmly against you. Oh, and let’s not forget that any moves against Pelosi’s plane might not be successful. The American military has been alerted to the danger, and it has its own forces that it can use to protect her plane. There is a real possibility that China could create all that backlash AND find out that its military isn’t as strong as it had hoped.

In short, there are a lot of ways that this could go very badly for China.

Let’s go back to Xi Jinping. According to most analysts, Xi is firmly on course to secure a third term. There are complaints about the economy, the Covid response, and several other things, but most people don’t seem to think that anyone is ready to make a serious challenge to Xi’s power. If this is an accurate description, Xi’s strategy should be to hold everything steady. If nothing big changes, he will win. They should downplay Pelosi’s visit as unimportant and insignificant, while issuing all the standard complaints about Chinese sovereignty and Taiwan separatists. If there is nothing to see here, then there is no humiliation for Xi or China. Xi’s Taiwan strategy is still on track, and Xi marches inevitably toward a third term.

Yet what is happening with the Pelosi trip is just the opposite. China is actively creating/escalating an international crisis in which there is a high probability that it will not obtain a good outcome. Effectively, China could be inviting everyone to see Xi and the current government as weak and ineffective. This is precisely the sort of thing that could derail Xi’s pursuit of a third term. Why would Xi allow China to pursue a strategy that has the potential to remove him from power?

The only way China’s actions make sense to me is if everyone is wrong about Xi’s grip on power and Xi Jinping is in serious trouble. There are two versions of this story.

The first scenario is that Xi Jinping expects he will lose. In this version, opponents have taken advantage of all those complaints about the economy and the general direction of China to secretly put together a coalition broad enough to unseat Xi. Western scholars and journalists, who have largely been kept out of China for the past two years, have not picked up the scent of this rebellion, but Xi has. Moreover, it is so large and powerful that he can’t just purge his opponents. He has to persuade them. In this scenario, he needs a major victory to re-establish his prestige. Even though there is a high risk of failure over Pelosi’s trip, he feels he has to take this chance in order to maintain his grip on power.

In the second scenario, Xi is still on track to win, but there is a significant challenge and his grip on power is looser than most people think. In this scenario, Xi understands that risks involved in escalating the conflict over the Pelosi visit. However, Xi is not fully in control. His opponents, sensing an opportunity, have used their influence over the media and other institutions to escalate the tension and forced Xi to go along with them. Essentially, they are pushing him into a situation in which there is a high possibility that he will come out looking weak. It is possible they might be able to push Xi out of power, and a significant defeat in Taiwan policy might be the thing that secures that outcome.

Again, most analysts reassure us that Xi is firmly on track to secure a third term, so neither of these scenarios should be in play. However, China’s actions and statements about the Pelosi visit make a lot more sense if Xi is in trouble.

Alternatively, perhaps no one in China is actually that worked up about Pelosi’s visit, and the USA is just taking China’s standard (insincere) doomsday rhetoric seriously yet again. I don’t think it is that simple, but it is logically consistent.

Postscript: While I was writing this, Nancy Pelosi’s office issued a press statement saying that she is leading a delegation to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. This doesn’t mean she is definitely not coming to Taiwan, but it seems more likely that she will not. China’s gamble might be paying off.

Not much change?

July 17, 2022

It has been six months since I last posted anything on this blog. I apologize for my inactivity. It has been a difficult period in my personal life, and I just didn’t have the energy to work on this blog.

Lots of things have happened since January, so there has been plenty to write about. Covid has swept through Taiwan, Taiwan and the USA have started trade talks, Russia invaded Ukraine and the world has become more aware of Taiwan’s security challenges, KMT chair Eric Chu took a trip to the USA, there is no water crisis this year but now we are starting to worry about electricity, and on and on. The news never stops. However, if you step back and look at the wider picture, I’m not sure anything has fundamentally changed. President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings haven’t changed much, and neither has the relative popularity of the two major parties. The PRC’s ambitions for Taiwan probably haven’t changed that much, and neither has Taiwan’s willingness or ability to defend itself. The two parties have almost finished putting together their nominations for this year’s local elections, and none of the candidates are big surprises (with one glaring exception: the KMT in Taoyuan). The KMT is still in relatively good shape for this year’s elections, and they are still clueless about how to fight the 2024 national elections. VP William Lai still has the clearest path to the presidency. There are lots of new leaves and even a few new trees, but it’s still basically the same forest.

As always, I like to use the My Formosa polls as a standard reference. They ask the same questions over and over using the same methodology at regular intervals. They aren’t picking and choosing dramatic moments when someone will look better or worse, and they aren’t designing new questions each month to highlight someone’s successes or failures. This is a pretty good snapshot of how public opinion is evolving. There hasn’t been a lot of dramatic movement thus far during 2022.

President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings remain quite good. She’s had about 55% satisfied and 40% satisfied all year. There was a dip in May when the Covid outbreak seemed scariest, but her ratings rebounded in June. The Covid effect has turned out to be pretty small. About 20% of the population has been confirmed with Covid since January, but society has mostly shrugged it off. People haven’t been anywhere near as panicked as they were in the outbreak last summer. While last year’s outbreak was much smaller, it was scarier. The population was almost entirely unvaccinated, and about 1 of every 20 people who contracted the virus died. This year, nearly 90% of the population has gotten at least one shot, and only about 1 of every 500 cases has been fatal. Of those fatalities, nearly half have come from the small portion of the population that is still completely unvaccinated and a disproportionate number of the rest are from people who only got one shot. About 2/3 of the population has gotten three shots, and fatalities are quite low among that group. The public is no longer ecstatic about the government’s pandemic response, but it also isn’t particularly angry about it. Covid is still in the news, but it is usually the fifth or eighth most important news story of the day. There was a small but temporary effect in the May survey, but it doesn’t seem to have had a lasting effect. Covid is not going to be the dominant issue for the 2022 local elections unless there is a big change. In the meantime, President Tsai is still enjoying positive, stable job approval ratings.

If you want to look for some change in the data, perhaps there is something happening in party ID. It is possible that the KMT is losing popularity. The June poll was downright horrifying for the KMT. Only 9.5% expressed support for the KMT, barely more than the 8.9% for the TPP. We’ve seen plenty of lousy, sensationalist polls find that the TPP and KMT are even, but this is the first time I’ve seen them so close in a poll that I trust. This chart shows party ID aggregated into camps, and My Formosa always finds a few more people who said they support parties in a particular camp without naming which one, so the blue camp is noticeably higher than the TPP. Still, that is a dismal result for the KMT. Now, this is one poll, and the KMT’s party ID is quite different from previous months. It is possible that large numbers of previous KMT supporters were alienated by Chu’s trip to the USA or by nomination conflicts, but that seems a bit of a stretch to me. I’ll watch this number over the next few months, but I expect it to bounce back from the June data point. However, even ignoring the June number, if you squint your eyes a bit, you can see a slight downward trend in the blue camp’s popularity over the first half of 2022. It’s a small change (prior to June), but if I were a KMT strategist I’d feel a bit queasy looking at this overall trend.

Meanwhile, support for the DPP and green camp seems to be pretty stable. You might think that two years after the national election and six years into Tsai’s presidency, people would be getting tired of the status quo and itching for change. This is normally the time period in which the governing party is running out of steam and the energetic opposition party is gearing up to challenge for power. However, we don’t see much evidence of that this year. The DPP seems to be steadily maintaining its popularity, and the KMT isn’t showing many signs of rejuvenation.

As I have told several people this year, this might create an unusual context for local elections. In almost all of the recent election cycles, the government has been unpopular. This has meant that the opposition party has had a powerful appeal: send a message to the government and teach them a lesson! There was strong anti-government sentiment in 2018, 2014, 2005/6, and 1997. There was moderate anti-government sentiment in 2009/10 and 2001/2. I think the last time the government was actually popular might have been 1993/4. In 1993, I was a recent college graduate teaching English in a rural Nantou township and just starting to learn some of the basics of Taiwanese elections. That’s so long ago that the Central Election Commission website doesn’t even bother to report the 1993 results. Since many readers will not immediately think back to 1993/4, let me quickly recap. The DPP, which was still a fledgling party with no realistic hopes for taking power, made a big push in 1993 to exploit KMT factional rifts and win local power. It didn’t work. The KMT comfortably won most of the “contested” races. They even defeated the DPP incumbents in Changhua and Pingtung, the latter of whom was a charismatic bald guy who no one would ever hear of again. The next year, Taiwan held its first election for governor of Taiwan Province. The DPP had a fantastic nominee, the popular former Yilan County magistrate and widely respected Chen Ting-nan. The KMT could only put up a party hack with no electoral experience at all, a mainlander who didn’t speak any Taiwanese. All the energy was on the DPP side. Naturally, James Soong and the KMT won a decisive victory. At the same time, the KMT comfortably maintained its majority in the Provincial Assembly. The last time the government was popular in local elections, the opposition got swamped. I’m not predicting that the DPP will have a smashing victory in 2022. However, I do think it is worth remembering that the context might be different this time. We don’t really know what a popular government should expect from local elections in the current fully democratic regime.

At the beginning of this post, I said that the KMT seems to be in relatively good shape this year. It has a good roster of nominees. One of the effects of the 2018 KMT wave is that this year it has a lot of incumbents running for re-election. That is usually a big advantage. Hou Yu-ih in New Taipei and Lu Hsiu-yen in Taichung seem comfortably positioned to win their races. Those two are the traditional swing areas, so it’s a big deal if the KMT can safely put them in its column. The KMT should also be favored in Hsinchu County, Miaoli, Nantou, Hualien, Taitung, and, of course, Kinmen and Lienchiang. Even if they don’t win anything else, that’s a pretty solid result for a party that is showing such meager popularity in the national polls. And of course, they could certainly win a few other races. Taipei City might be hotly contested, but I’d still put my money on Wayne Chiang and the KMT to emerge victorious. And their incumbents give them a shot in greener-leaning areas such as Yilan, Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi City, and Penghu. However, that latter group of races is where we might see the national partisan trends change some outcomes. Again, we don’t know how much it matters for local elections that people are mostly satisfied with the Tsai administration. But we can be fairly sure there won’t be a massive wave of voters angrily trying to send a message to the national government the way they did in 2018.