Xi Jinping’s purging of political rivals and elevation of loyalists to the top ranks of the Chinese Communist party has raised fears that his now unfettered and unquestionable power could increase the risk of an attack on Taiwan.
Beijing has pledged to annex Taiwan under a disputed claim that it is a Chinese province, and in recent years has increased its military activity and other forms of harassment and coercion. No timeline has been set, but senior defence figures have said China could be capable of invasion as early as 2027. Others point to Xi’s pledge of “national rejuvenation” by 2047 – the centenary of the People’s Republic of China – as a potential goal.
But with the events of last week’s CCP congress, which consolidated power around Xi at levels not seen for decades, some are now questioning whether there is anyone left in the party who could stop him from making a rash move.
The 20th party congress – the most important meeting of China’s political cycle – ended with Xi’s reappointment for a precedent-breaking third term, and a reshuffle of officials.
The central committee, the politburo, the seven-member standing committee (PSC) and the Xi-led central military commission (CMC), which is in charge of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are now dominated by loyalists and cleared of potential objectors and people from rival factions.
Official reports and constitutional amendments also enshrined its hardening official stance towards Taiwan that had escalated as recently as August with the release of a white paper.
Analysts and Taiwanese decision-makers are studying the changes to assess whether Xi’s timeline for Taiwan is any shorter, or the same. After a week of watching the congress – an exercise sometimes compared to reading tea leaves – most agreed it definitely had not slowed.
Prof Steve Tsang, the director of the Soas China Institute, said the changes made last week unquestionably increased the risk of China using force against Taiwan.
There was already a low appetite for raising objections among the previous CCP leadership ranks, said Tsang, but “by replacing non-loyalists by proteges and loyalists in the party [including the PLA], Xi has made sure that no one will ever contradict him”.
“The risk of one man making a bad judgment and starting a war is always greater than a group of them doing so,” he added.
Among the new CMC appointments is Gen He Weidong, a rising star who has overseen the the PLA’s eastern command since 2019. He was reportedly an architect of the massive military drills staged after the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan in August. He, who was not even in the 200-member central committee at the last congress, is now the second-ranked official of the CMC.
The South China Morning Post also reported that other appointments, including Gen Zhang Youxia, and Adm Miao Hua, have similarly Taiwan-focused backgrounds.
Taiwan’s defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, said the CMC appointments suggested the CCP was “boosting its preparedness” for an invasion, Taiwanese media reported.
Victor Shih, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, said the new makeup of the PSC and CMC ensured Xi’s orders would be implemented, “however extreme”. “This may include a decision to invade Taiwan. Of course, preparing for something doesn’t mean it will happen,” Shih said.
Xi’s continued commitment to “reunification” was first confirmed last week in his 104-minute opening speech, which made early and numerous references to Taiwan.
In the longer “work report”, of which the speech was an excerpt, a key phrase defined reunification as a “requirement” for this promised “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Analysts had said the absence of such phrasing could have signalled a de-escalation.
The amendments to the CCP’s guiding constitution also cemented Beijing’s more aggressive stance on Taiwan. Where it previously listed Taiwan alongside Hong Kong and Macau as a place with which to “build solidarity”, it now sweared to “resolutely oppose and constrain Taiwan independence”.
The propaganda apparatus played along. According to the Xinhua news agency, a Chinese state mouthpiece, when Xi declared the wheels of history were rolling towards reunification, the people of Taiwan “deeply felt the harmony and warmth” of his words.
Across the Taiwan Strait, the large and growing majority of Taiwan’s 23.5 million population who oppose annexation beg to differ, but in Xi’s China what the Taiwanese public wants is no real consideration.
Analysis by the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that the Chinese work report made the particular point in blaming “foreign interference and Taiwan separatists” for the tensions, suggesting the CCP may be seeking to drive a wedge between the Taiwan’s pro-independence majority and its pro-unification minority while resisting international pushback.
“By emphasising that it maintains the option to use military force specifically to deter foreign and independence-seeking forces, Beijing may be trying to limit backlash among Taiwanese who have reacted negatively to its shows of military force in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and in the middle of the Taiwan Strait,” the thinktank said.
Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew school of public policy and a former US state department official, said the political dynamic in Beijing had changed as Xi was “without rivals, a designated successor or moderating voices” to act as a check on his impulses.
But knowing the Chinese president’s innermost thoughts and plans is a near impossible task. “We can ask endless questions why Xi and the party make particular decisions, but we can’t definitively answer any of them,” Thompson said, noting that even Beijing insiders were left guessing as to the final makeup of the PSC until Sunday.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the US-based German Marshall Fund thinktank, warned against speculation, saying she saw no evidence of “increased urgency” in the congress work report. “I think the risks are growing, but I believe that Xi is mindful of the potentially high costs of an attempted military takeover of Taiwan and he likely knows the PLA is not ready,” she said.
Amanda Hsiao, an ICG analyst and co-author of the thinktank’s report, said things may become clearer when the current head of China’s Taiwan affairs office – who was removed from the central committee – is replaced.
But she said it was clear from the work report and the August white paper that there was “a lot of continuity in the basic principles that have undergirded China’s approach to Taiwan”.
“China will likely stepping up pressures on Taiwan in the coming years and will more or less follow the playbook they’ve been employing in the last couple of years,” she said.