Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has been more than an egg on China’s face. In response China fired long range missiles, sent fighter planes near Taiwan and commenced an unprecedented war game which is a de-facto blockade of the island. These exercises are being sold to the public as the precursor to the eventual invasion of Taiwan. An accidental foul-up could escalate tensions between USA, China and Taiwan that could even suck in Japan, Philippines, South Korea and other countries. China is breathing fire and brimstone and tightening screws around Taiwan. It has scrapped a range of interactions with USA including cooperation on illegal immigration, cross border crimes and climate change. It has broken off routine military meetings with USA. It has also imposed sanctions on Nancy Pelosi and her family. Their foreign minister has walked out of an ASEAN meet in a huff. Chinese diplomats are lashing out at UK, EU and G7 countries. China finds itself in a lonely corner with support only from Russia, Pakistan and probably North Korea. However what happens hereafter is the real issue. In this evolving scenario, what are the outcomes for a hyper-nationalistic China which remains obsessed with Taiwan. That is an important imponderable after being shown in poor light.
This issue came into my focus through two articles. One in New Yok Times titled
Perils of Preaching Nationalism Play Out on Chinese Social Media
and the other in South China Morning Post titled Pelosi, Taiwan and the Perils of Chinese Nationalism. These eerily similar articles expose China’s hyper-nationalistic vulnerability which is often mistaken as its strength. Stoking nationalism has been a common denominator since the Mao era. Xi Jinping has taken it to a new high. “Nationalism is becoming a core pillar of both the party’s and Xi’s personal political legitimacy … it has become progressively larger under Xi Jinping, as nationalist appeals have moved from the margins to the centre of the Chinese propaganda apparatus across the board,” as per Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia. Chinese Nationalism is a double edged sword and difficult to control once out of the scabbard. The sword is flashing as China ramps up its vitriol.
In fact, Xi Jinping tee-ed off the current hyper- nationalism drive during his talk with President Biden. He has been quoted to say “the firm will of 1.4 billion Chinese people cannot be defied” and that “If you play with fire, you will surely perish by it”. Wang Yi, the foreign minister jumped on to the bandwagon to say that Pelosi was “making an enemy of 1.4 billion Chinese people” and “would come to no good end”. Zhao Lijian, China’s “wolf warrior-in-chief” and foreign ministry spokesperson warned USA that PLA would “never sit idly by…China will definitely take resolute and strong countermeasures to defend its own sovereignty and territorial integrity”. He was suggesting military action. PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command, posted on Weibo that it was waiting for the order to fight and would “bury all invading enemies.” The post was liked more than a million times, and the embedded video, featuring footage of bombings and explosions, has had more than 47 million views.
Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times took hyper-nationalism into outer space. His tweets urged military aggression. “If Pelosi visits Taiwan, PLA military aircraft will accompany Pelosi’s plane to enter the island, making a historic crossing of the island by military aircraft from mainland for the 1st time. Its significance would overwhelm Pelosi’s visit,” and “If US fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, it is invasion. The PLA has the right to forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane and the US fighter jets, including firing warning shots and making tactical movement of obstruction. If ineffective, then shoot them down”. He called on his nearly 24 million followers on Weibo and 510,000 followers on Twitter to “support all the countermeasures by the government and share the hatred of the enemy…We will definitely launch strong countermeasures to hit USA and Taiwan…So hard that the Taiwan authorities will regret it”.
After the high decibel drumbeats and vitriolic social media commentaries, the mainland public expected more than sabre-rattling propaganda. Public expectations of extremely tough action by China shot up. Once Nancy Pelosi’s visit went through without a hitch there was dismay. Confidence in the government was shaken. Disbelief tinged by widespread disappointment set in. Comments included “I can’t believe it! I was about to celebrate the unification with Taiwan by force,”… “China is strong enough to do so. Isn’t it?”… “Don’t put on a show of power if you don’t have the power”…“What a loss of face”…“A great nation. How ironic!” “When China said ‘strongly condemn’ and ‘solemnly declare,’ it was only for the purpose of amusing ordinary folks like us”… “So tough when it comes to domestic governance and so cowardly in foreign affairs…Utterly disappointed!”…The public sneered at the announcement that the PLA would conduct military exercises near Taiwan. “Save some gas,” said one WeChat user. “It’s very expensive now,” responded another. Comments indicated widespread public disappointment with Beijing’s lame response. People complained that they felt let down and lied to by the government! Soon the comments section was closed. There is also caution on war mongering citing the loss of life and damage to property in the Ukraine war as an example. In a one-child nation which is ageing rapidly, without a good pension system, people might not be prepared to sacrifice their sole bread winners in a war with Taiwan which is unwinnable militarily.
The Chinese have been stoking nationalism by exaggerating China’s strength, creating illusions of superiority of the communist model through state controlled media. They have been bragging about its industrial, technological and military strength to create a halo of invincibility. It was always widely known that China does not have the capacity as yet to take over Taiwan militarily. Despite this, in this instance, they painted themselves into a corner with their bluster and bluffs, which has been called fair and square by USA. In fact, Chinese limitations have been exposed to their own public in this incident. Some went to the extent of saying that they are disappointed or ashamed with their government. Some even want to renounce their Communist Party memberships or think that the PLA is wasting taxpayers’ money. On the other hand, the common Chinese see a democratic and rich Taiwan calmly taking communist China’s might head on. They also know that ‘democracy’ in Taiwan is providing their country cousins a far better life than that promised by ‘communism’ in mainland China. They also see that tiny Taiwan has far better international relations than PRC, which now stands isolated. Many now know that the communists have created an artificial superiority halo and are issuing hollow threats. While stoking nationalism is a great tool, the rising adverse sentiment if unbridled could lead to a heavy backfire. Xi and his band are now feeling the cut of the double edged nationalism sword.
The Nancy Pelosi incident has to be also viewed against a larger back drop. Once Sunday passes and military posturing draws down (hopefully), China will have to face a new reality. Its aggression will queer the pitch economically and diplomatically in its neighbourhood and beyond. If military drills are persisted with, which might be the new normal with Taiwan, it will undermine China’s exports and relations with other countries, especially those which are its major export destinations. It will rebound to accentuate factory closures and job losses in an era of banking stress and real estate slump. Its weakening economy and waning global influence will get compounded and result in further deflation of nationalism. If the public disappointment of the Nancy Pelosi incident gets conflated with the adverse sentiment behind ‘mortgage’ refusals and clamour for return of ‘savings’ from failed banks, the problem will assume threatening proportions. To this, add the discomfiture and weariness of lockdowns of major cities due to the draconian Zero Covid policy. Xi Jinping’s prematurely declared victory over the virus will haunt him.
Logically, hyper-nationalism in China is bound to deflate sharply after this incident. Where does it leave China? In the short term, it leaves China and its leadership, which is over-obsessed with the 20th Party Congress, to anoint Xi Jinping as a ruler for a third term to satisfy a personal ambition. This necessitates regaining face. The national ire is therefore being focussed on Taiwan. USA is being painted as the evil empire which is attempting to break up China. Xi Jinping and his cronies are already busy building a security fortress to insulate him and China. The fortress is designed to keep “colour revolutions” out which can threaten Xi’s China. Nationalism is an important ingredient to keep the fortress intact and colour revolutions at bay. In the long-term, China is a declining power. Most important reasons being an endemic deficiency of resources and energy, import dependence of agriculture products, a palpably weakening economy, an impending demographic catastrophe and an out of proportion expenditure on militarisation. The affluent outside world which aided China’s growth will hereafter oppose it. China is predicted to be experiencing a peaking-power syndrome. The reality of an impending decline is known to the Chinese and it will only drive them to be more aggressive.
The Nancy Pelosi affair is a huge deflation to hyper-nationalistic China. Communists have commenced to restoke nationalism to regain lost ground. To be known as the greatest Chinese to be born, Xi Jinping will keep China on an aggressive course. Both these involve stepping hard on the gas pedal on Taiwan. However that eventually is a self-defeating course. As per South China Morning Post to sanction Taiwan is just like moving a stone and dropping it on your own foot. Extend this logic further. To invade Taiwan is shooting yourself in your head. Not only will the nationalistic balloon be burst, your brains will be blown. All the best to the Huff and Puff of Chinese Hyper-Nationalism. The big bad dragon deflated rudely by an octogenarian can do little else.
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