President Joe Biden, left, speaks as he meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on screen, from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Susan Walsh / AP

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

It is unlikely that you were following the results of the latest Plenum of the Communist Party of China last week. But if you were, you would have seen that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has now been formally elevated in the party’s propagandist narrative of history to a level only occupied in their eyes by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

This may not sound like a very big deal — it is just rhetoric after all — but for China this designation is incredibly relevant. According to the Wall Street Journal, the designation “ensures longevity for Mr. Xi’s agenda and armors him against criticism because that would require challenging the party’s narrative of history.”

This comes two years after China, at Xi’s behest, removed the previous term limits on the presidency, paving the way for him to remain leader for life. All of this means that Xi has consolidated power, and is taking steps to ensure that he is in the strongest possible political position domestically, making him unchallengeable as he pursues major strategic initiatives.

As this is happening, China is accelerating the development of its nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon anticipates that “the [People’s Republic of China] likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020,” according to an assessment released this month. That projection was already troubling enough, as it represented a doubling of China’s current nuclear capabilities.

And here’s why you really should care about this: This is all being done with an eye toward a confrontation with the United States over the island of Taiwan. It is coming, and with Xi’s solidified position, China is taking steps to ensure that confrontation results in their ultimate domination.

That confrontation was made all the more likely after the collective shrug of indifference that came from the West when China moved to politically crush any notion of freedom in Hong Kong. China did what it promised it would not do when the British handed the city back to China in the 1990s, and moved against Hong Kong, long one of the most free places on planet Earth, establishing political and economic control over it and forever snuffing out an important light of freedom in the world.

The United States, then under President Donald Trump, did not respond effectively to the Hong Kong situation in 2019 when it began, eventually being more distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic than in protecting Hong Kong’s promised independence. Nor did Britain, long dormant on the world stage but uniquely connected to the city of Hong Kong due to it being a British colonial possession for so long. All we got out of the Atlantic alliance and its NATO allies was some sternly worded rhetoric, and not much else.

China, and Xi as its leader, learned an important lesson in that situation. They saw that when they violated international agreements and moved with impunity to increase their control over something they long wanted to possess outright, the west would not respond. Granted, a military confrontation over Hong Kong was not likely to happen, nor would it have been wise, but diplomatic and economic pressure that could’ve been applied to punish the Chinese was simply not pursued seriously.

Now enter Taiwan. Xi’s strategic goals in leadership are not terribly mysterious. He wishes to capture all of China’s irredentist claims to increase his personal prestige as a great historical figure in Chinese history and to increase China’s international influence, and he is building a war machine to do it.

Perhaps you don’t believe anyone should care about the inevitable move against Taiwan. If China wants it, let them go and take it. I certainly understand that, particularly in the wake of the increased skepticism Americans have about an activist foreign policy. But understand that Taiwan’s loss will have real consequences, and at its most basic level, the potential conflict will represent a genocidal regime that suppresses basic human rights and is armed with a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons attacking a democratic neighbor with overwhelming military force. That is not something the world should stand for in any circumstances.

To his credit, President Joe Biden has taken the right position on Taiwan. Despite the ridiculousness of the “virtual summit” meeting he just had with Xi, he said the right things and promoted the right position.

But that doesn’t change the most fundamental truth at play here. China will move against Taiwan at some point, and American rhetoric and resolve will be tested. China’s leader for life, flush with propagandist myth-making about his glorious reign, seems to be betting that it will ultimately fail.


Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...