Childish tantrums would seem to be an appropriate way to describe the reaction of China to the recent visit of the US Leader of the House of Representative to Taiwan. The ships, planes and missiles deployed around Taiwan look a bit like a child throwing toys in childish tantrums. A trifle more dangerous, perhaps, but the same concept. It also totally against traditional Chinese decorum, meticulous long-term planning and pride. If you didn’t know the players involved, it is almost like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s reaction when he doesn’t get what he wants – childish tantrums.
I thought it would be interesting to analyze how this anomaly in Chinese behavior came about, and to speculate what it might mean for future reactions to growing Chinese aggression across the world.
My first thought is that the US had to go ahead with the visit. The bellicose reaction of China to the planned visit of a top US politician forced the issue, which might have been modified, or even cancelled, if that reaction had not been as strong. I would also add that, although the media loves to personalize these issues, this has nothing to do with Nancy Pelosi as a person. It is the attempt by China to dictate where and when a US senior official can travel that is totally unacceptable. After China’s initial childish tantrums, Pelosi had to go.
My second thought, which I have alluded to in previous blogs, focuses on the conversion of Chinese government policies into Xi Jinping’s personal policies. Xi has steadily created a personality cult that seems to be growing daily. You could ask “what’s the difference”, the result is the same. Xi’s policies are now China’s policies. To some extent that is true but, where they differ, is how you deal with them. Dealing with a person is vastly different than dealing with a structure. In some ways, it’s an easier focus, but it is also a lot more unpredictable, dangerous and, at times, irrational. Certainly Xi’s childish tantrums would lend credence to the concept that China is now ruled by a personality cult.
Xi has been creating this cult for some time. There are, at last count, 23 institutes totally dedicated to “The Thoughts of Xi Jinping”. They did not exist before he came to power. All Chinese school children are now taught to learn and absorb the thoughts of Xi Jinping. It’s Mao Tse-Tung all over again, except China is now much more developed, more capable, more dangerous, and a world player.
Xi is facing “re-election” in November at the Communist Party Congress. Such elections are hardly democratic, or transparent, but, despite his despotic rule, his re-election is not assured. Few know, or understand, the processes that lead to the next leader of China but some things are known. Xi is trying for a third term in office, which sets a new precedent. He is also facing a great deal of internal dissent resulting from the Covid lockdowns, internal rural unrest over economic problems and quiet revolts from the intellectual and rich elites. Although he has apparently managed the situation well to date, he is not invincible.
All this means that he is even more sensitive to anything that might indicate he is weak in any way. Confrontation over Taiwan is both a positive and a negative in this respect. Positive to his image if he reacts aggressively, negative if he is seen to not react. That is a potent and dangerous situation. Apart from childish tantrums, he is almost obligated to act as aggressively as he thinks he can get away with, and therein lies the real danger of miscalculations. Tit-for-tat escalations of aggression have led to many wars, which no-one wanted.
The fact that we are now dealing with a person, not a country, makes these calculations much more difficult and dangerous. People can be far more irrational and unpredictable than institutions. We live in dangerous times, and those in power need to calculate carefully the nature of possible reactions to their decisions, while maintaining solid opposition to Xi’s excesses/childish tantrums.