August 9, 2022 - 10:16am

Xi Jinping’s immediate political agenda is clear: securing his infinite term in the 20th Party Congress, likely held in October or November. To achieve this, he needs to paint a picture of prosperous China that was built, in part, by his own leadership. Unfortunately for Xi, things are not looking so rosy: cyclical lockdowns have damaged China’s growth prospects, with a 2.6% contraction in output between April and June this year. In addition, the job market is in a grim place (11 million fresh graduates need jobs) while China’s huge economy has been threatened by a housing crisis ‘the likes of which has never been seen’.

So if Xi is struggling to project a sunny upbeat image in anticipation of the 20th Party Congress, what else can he do? Well, he could say that China is facing a moment of peril that only he can salvage. In this regard, Nancy Pelosi has just done him a huge favour.

Just when the likelihood of Xi continuing his term appeared less than absolute, Pelosi decided to visit Taiwan. Despite all the fanfare that greeted the House Speaker, China has since engaged in multiple rounds of military exercises — the latest of which will be focusing on anti-submarine and sea assault operations.

Back home, this visit has given Xi the chance to change his messaging away from domestic troubles to Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese press has duly obliged, providing blanket coverage of the visit and the military drills. Meanwhile on social media, a Chinese idiom has started to emerge: ‘No Zuo No Die’, which combines the Chinese verb ‘Zuo’ with the English verb to describe someone who acts hysterically for attention. Its somewhat sinister meaning is that that those who play with fire deserve to perish by it. 

This rhetoric will be familiar to anyone who has been following developments in Taiwan. Prior to Pelosi’s visit, Xi warned President Biden to “not play with fire” over Taiwan, but the Speaker nonetheless proceeded to visit. So what was Pelosi and the US hoping to achieve from this visit? The only way this could have worked in America’s favour is, perversely, if an actual war had started, but nobody in their right mind would support such a move.

Pelosi’s visit was short-sighted because she has unknowingly strengthened Xi’s mandate. The Chinese economy is in trouble and there are many ways in which it could implode prior to the 20th Congress. If another Omicron outbreak erupts, or officials fail to solve systemic problems in the property sector, all bets are off. But Taiwan serves as a useful distraction for Xi and if he starts feeling domestic pressure, he may feel threatened enough to do something radical abroad.

Leng Ping is a professional from mainland China living in the UK and writing under a pseudonym.