On the day of the U.S. midterm elections, as most Americans shifted their attention away from China, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made his most alarming speech since securing his historic third term at the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 20th National Party Congress. Speaking as commander-in-chief of the Joint Operations of the Central Military Commission, Xi said, “Today, I and members of the Central Military Commission came…to make it clear to all of you that the new Central Military Commission will solidly align itself with the spirit of the 20th National Congress to comprehensively strengthen our position of troop training to prepare for war.” This remark was made during a visit to the joint operations command center, a bunker buried several hundred meters deep on the outskirts of Beijing.
Is this troop training an indication that Xi is preparing China for war over Taiwan? While many people are reluctant to acknowledge that as an immediate reality, determining instead that Xi’s remarks are standard rhetoric for the commander of a war unit whose purpose is to get ready for battle, ambiguity over Taiwan is rarely Xi’s intention. On the contrary, Xi wants to be very clear to the world about his intention to take control of Taiwan.
Later in the same speech, Xi said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must prioritize the only fundamental standard: combat effectiveness. The Chinese military must focus all its energy on fighting and enhancing its ability to win wars.
This is quite different from what Xi said five years ago when he visited the same joint operations command center after the 19th Party Congress. At that time, he asked the military to "strengthen responsibility, strengthen reform and innovation, strengthen implementation, and comprehensively improve the ability to prepare for war in the new era.”
Five years ago, Xi ordered the military to prepare for war; today, the order is to win a war.
But to win a war against whom? The direct target is clearly Taiwan, but the PLA’s real rival is America and its allies, who are likely to come to Taiwan’s defense should China invade the island.
If America and its allies join the fight over Taiwan, it will not be the quick battle Xi has hoped for, even if the PLA gains the upper hand early. It will be a long, hard war on the battlefield and at home, as Xi works to first gain support from his nation and then sustain that support through lengthy battles and what will surely be extensive loss of life. But, as a closer look into the new top leadership of the CCP reveals, that is exactly what Xi appears to be preparing for. Xi has formed a wartime cabinet that is able to efficiently draw resources from and ready the entire nation for war.
Following the 20th Party Congress, a new Central Military Commission (CMC) was put in charge of the two-million-strong PLA. The most striking difference between Xi’s new CMC and the previous one is that the current leadership is narrowly focused on Taiwan and waging war. Adm. He Weidong, the new vice-chairman of the CMC, previously led the Eastern Theater Command, whose primary responsibility is the recapture of Taiwan by force. He also oversaw China’s large-scale live-fire military around Taiwan in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to the island. His promotion to vice-chairman is considered by many to be an astounding departure from China’s pattern of political promotions, given that He had not previously been a member of the CMC or the Party’s Central Committee. Xi’s willingness to radically depart from established political patterns demonstrates his central focus on Taiwan.
Adm. Zhang Youxiao remained as another CMC vice-chairman and is one of two members who have seen time in battle, having participated in the 1979 China-Vietnam War. This choice was more expected, given that Zhang and Xi’s fathers had worked together during the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s and the two families continue to have a good relationship. Moreover, despite the fact that many CMC members have not personally seen time in battle, all are hostile to the idea of Taiwan’s self-determination.
That a large portion of the PLA’s top leadership is optimized for invading Taiwan says a lot about Xi’s intentions for his third term in office. But wanting to fight a war is a far cry from having the resources and strategies necessary to win a war that is sure to involve many global superpowers. There are indications, though, that Xi has fine-tuned his plan for fighting a war over Taiwan.
The CCP’s Politburo is a powerful ruling body, second only to the Politburo Standing Committee. Seven provincial heads were added to the 20th Politburo, making up 40 percent of the twenty-four-member Politburo, excluding the Standing Committee members. This is a deep departure from the norm, which raises questions about Xi’s motivations for appointing so many provincial heads as members of the Politburo. On further examination, we see that these local party secretaries fall into three categories: those who have been senior technocrats in military-related fields, those who demonstrate excellence in coordinating and executing efforts in a province that will be directly involved in a war over Taiwan, and those who are Xi’s close confidants in such provinces.
The five top technocrats in the new Politburo are Li Ganjie, a nuclear expert from Shandong Province; Ma Xingrui, an aerospace expert from Xinjiang; Zhang Guoqing, who comes from Liaoning and was the general manager of the China Ordnance Industry Group; and Yuan Jiaun from Zhejiang, another aerospace expert.
These officials all began to take on increasingly complex and powerful governmental positions after Xi became general secretary of the CCP at the end of 2012, and all of them were promoted to their current provincial party secretary positions in late 2020 and 2021, after Xi had made international news for his positions on Taiwan. A closer examination reveals that the professional backgrounds of these secretaries are strongly correlated with the provinces they are currently governing and China’s potential needs in a war with Taiwan.
Li Ganjie, Shandong’s party secretary and a nuclear expert, worked in the nuclear sector for the majority of his career, eventually serving as deputy minister of environmental protection and director of the national nuclear safety administration. He began taking local governing positions in 2016, and in September 2021, he became the party secretary of Shandong. Li was likely appointed to that position because Shandong is a key base for the development of China's nuclear industry. China is quickly expanding its nuclear arsenal and developing nuclear power to increase its energy independence.
The second member, aerospace expert and Xinjiang Party Secretary Ma Xingrui, has held top leadership positions in aerospace and technology companies for many years, leading the efforts behind China's manned spaceflight and next-generation launch vehicles. Ma was given the party secretary role in Xinjiang because China’s major aerospace bases are located in the northwest and its most important satellite navigation system, Beidou, is headquartered in Xinjiang.
Beidou was designed to compete with and serve as a substitute for American-made GPS technology. In addition to its civilian uses, Beidou can navigate military vehicles and could guide precision strike weapons such as ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and air-to-ground missiles. The precise strike capability provided by Beidou could potentially enable "decapitation" missile attacks against Taiwan's political centers or important military facilities. In a conflict with America, the PLA will be able to launch precision missile attacks against U.S. military bases in Guam and maritime targets such as aircraft carriers using the Beidou navigation system.
The third military-focused member of the CMC is Liaoning Province’s Party Secretary, Zhang Guoqing. Zhang began his career at the China North Industries Corporation, which later changed its name to the China Ordnance Industries Group Corporation and is globally known as the Norinco Group. Norinco is a large state-owned enterprise whose manufacturing center is in Shen Yang, Liaoning’s capital. Unlike other state-owned companies, Norinco is directly managed by the central government. The company is the main research and production base for the PLA and provides weapons, ammunition, and equipment for numerous branches of the Chinese military, the armed police, and the public security forces, making it critical to China's national defense. Zhang has worked with Norinco for twenty-three years and was the general manager before entering government service.
The CMC’s fourth newly-appointed military technocrat is Liu Guozhong, who worked in one of China's earliest bomb and missile factories before entering politics. In 2016, Liu began his tenure in local political positions and, in 2020, was appointed party secretary of the Shaanxi Province, a primary weapon production center with the manufacturing base for large transport aircraft located in Xi’an, its capital.
The fifth and final technocrat is Party Secretary of Zhejiang province and aerospace expert Yuan Jiajun. Yuan was the commander-in-chief of the Shenzhou spacecraft program and president of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Institute before being appointed to a series of provincial positions within Zhejiang province starting in 2014. He was appointed party secretary of that province in August 2020.