Contextualizing Xi’s “Taiwan” Speech

It’s part of a campaign aimed primarily at his domestic audience

The CCP’s Liaoning Aircraft Carrier

Another speech from the dictator of China, Xi Jin-ping, another torrent of commentary washing through the well-worn gullies of China Explaining. Some provide detailed analyses of Xi’s speech, while others note that Xi and China have no real plan. Many commentators noted its lofty perspective and lack of clear goals and concrete ideas.

All of this commentary misses the point because it is always offered without any real context. The speech had a purpose. It was not the pro forma regurgitation of boilerplate that such speeches often appear to be to outsiders. Treating Xi’s speeches in this way is useful to the media. De-contextualizing it enables media workers to discuss with great glee how promptly it is rejected in Taiwan, and to laugh at how Hong Kong renders hollow its offer of “One Country, Two Systems”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects troops at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison as part of events marking the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2017. [REUTERS: Damir Sagolj]

Yet, no one has asked why Xi has made a speech he surely knows will be rejected out of hand in Taiwan and by interested outsiders. The answer is simple: the speech was aimed neither at Taiwan nor at outsiders, but at Xi’s domestic audience. Xi is laying the groundwork for the coming war against Taiwan (and nations beyond), and he has a reluctant people to convince. Speeches by Xi are but one prong of a broad campaign with that goal in mind.

Xi is laying the groundwork for the coming war against Taiwan (and nations beyond), and he has a reluctant people to convince.

To understand how this campaign works, it is important to place Xi’s speech in the context of all Chinese official and officially unofficial speaking about Taiwan and its allies. For example, soon after Xi spoke, General He Lei of the People’s Liberation Army delivered this wisdom for public consumption:

The very few “Taiwan-independence” separatists would be classified as war criminals that must be punished if the Chinese mainland is forced to deal with the Taiwan question by force, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general said on Wednesday.

The key point in General He’s remarks is not that Taiwan independence separatists will be hung — that would necessitate hanging about three-fourths of the population — but the phrase “very few”. I’ll return to that in a moment.

James Mattis with Lieutenant General He Lei in Beijing on June 2. [Bloomberg: Paul Miller]

This context is a classic formulation, where the Great Man at the top delivers “philosophical musings” that mix benevolence, sorrow that Someone Has Left The Path of Righteousness, and gentle warnings of possible sternness, while underlings send more direct, clearer, and nastier threats. The reality is indicated from below, leaving Xi to sound more high-minded than he actually is or the situation warrants.

Under Xi are Chinese officials who regularly come across as crazy to outsider listeners, like the Admiral who recently called for China to sink a couple of US aircraft carriers. This too is for domestic consumption. Also speaking are a range of actors, from the heads of agencies like the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) to netizens (whose activities are guided and coordinated), to widely quoted academics in “Taiwan studies” programs in China who are in reality disinformation agents and state actors, a fact often ignored by the foreign media (the Washington Post “analysis” cited above comes from this type of state agent).

In this ecosystem of actors Xi is merely the apex presider, far removed from the remarks of underlings, smiling benignly and paternally down while they repeat and enlarge on talking points for the benefit of the public. Nor do instructions need to be sent down from the top — people well understand what their role is, and many of them will act without prompting.

Recall that this campaign exists in an information space in China that is to a certain extent walled off from the world. William L. Shirer, a US correspondent in Berlin just before World War II, remarked on how this is effective practice even when residents of that space know better:

“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state….. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’ s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it.”
A Nazi propaganda poster promoting Hitler

Thus, it is pointless to dissect what Xi says because it is part of a larger propaganda stream. Xi has a war to legitimate. The people of China don’t want war and must be convinced that there is no other choice and in any case, it won’t entirely be a bad thing. Besides, it’s the right thing to do and really, it will be easier than people think. Hence while Xi offers vague platitudes and timetables, both Xi and his underlings constantly repeat this information:

  1. The actual number of Taiwan independence types is small and most people on the island support annexation to China — hence using violence to bring them into the fold is both practical and desirable, there won’t be much resistance.
  2. Annexation is inevitable so we may as well bring it about. Thus the “inevitability” trope is aimed at three audiences (1) the Taiwanese, hoping to reduce their resistance; (2) outsiders, who must be convinced not to interfere; and (3) the Chinese to encourage them to support hastening the process.
  3. China is “forced” to go to war over Taiwan. This “fact” is always presented, regardless of which actor in the ecosystem is speaking.
  4. China has some historical or cultural “right” to Taiwan. People in Taiwan are “Chinese”, “family” who must come home.
  5. 5,000 years. Century of Humiliation to be avenged. Japan!

And so on. Most readers will be familiar with these various tropes.

To understand why Xi keeps making the same speech again and again, it is necessary to understand the ecosystem into which it is propagated, and that system’s goals. Make no mistake: China is preparing for war. The military buildup is one part that is very visible to outsiders. But the amorphous, opaque campaign to convince Xi’s domestic audience is just as important.

Make no mistake: China is preparing for war.

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