Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) domestic problem is essentially economic in nature. Unlike other market economies, which might collapse if faced with the deep and dangerous economic problems China now faces, China is unlikely to collapse quickly.
China is not a real market economy; it remains a state-dominated command economy. The state has so many tools to ease, defer or postpone a crisis.
In the long run, China might not avoid a collapse after a long and devastating economic disaster, but in the short run, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime might survive.
Politically, there is no widespread social unrest and no internal party factions, not to mention organized opposition, inside or outside the party. Xi and the regime are still in firm control.
Although in the past few years, the Chinese have suffered a great deal with economic difficulties and three years of tight control during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCP’s reputation, the regime and Xi himself dropped to their lowest points, yet still the state is too powerful, the brainwashing too thorough and the people too timid. The regime is constantly stirring up hatred against the US, Japan and Taiwan’s independence movement, successfully diverting people’s dissatisfaction to “outside hostile forces.”
Using outside adventurism, even war, to divert internal attention and serve a domestic purpose has been used repeatedly and skillfully by the People’s Republic of China in its more than 70-year history, so it is fair to say that there is a possibility that Xi and China might use war again this time.
The Korean War was used in 1950 to gain then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s trust and establish the nascent CCP regime’s full control over China; the border war with India in 1962 was used to divert domestic attention when three years of the disastrous “great leap forward” caused tens of millions of deaths through starvation and led to total economic failure; the border clash with the Soviet Union in 1969 was used to end the chaos of the cultural revolution; and the border war with Vietnam in 1979 was used to cozy up to the US and establish the authority of then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
However, those are the adventures China took when it was poor, isolated and had little to lose. The regime also believed nothing would happen to its control of the country even if it lost a war. Chinese leaders’ internal speeches in those years showed that. Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and his colleagues did not fear “breaking pots and jars; when broken, they can just be remade,” and they cared little about being sanctioned and isolated. Today, things are different.
China is now rich and prosperous and is a world leader with global economic, diplomatic, strategic and security interests. There would be too much to lose if a war with Taiwan or India were lost. The regime and Xi’s own power might be dainaged or even imperiled.
The possibility of losing a war against Taiwan is real if the US intervenes, which would be devastating to China and to Xi personally. So China would be careful this time when it contemplates a war of adventure.
Xi and the Chinese authorities would be very hesitant to start an invasion of Taiwan or a full-scale war with India, unless they believe it is absolutely necessary and that they have a good chance of success.
A limited border war with India is possible, but India is much stronger than it was in 1962 and much better prepared. Moreover, China has much to lose diplomatically, if not militarily and strategically, were it to start a border war with India, and would be worse off if it lost.
Khedroob Thondup is a former member of the Tibetan parliament in exile.
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