Why is Taiwan so important to Chinese President Xi Jinping?

Only two people in modern Chinese history have been given the official title of “ling xiu” or “leader”.

The first was the founder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mao Zedong, who was called the “great leader”. The second was his successor, Hua Guofeng, who was called the “wise leader”.

At the 20th CPC National Congress in October, President Xi Jinping is expected to be granted an unprecedented third five-year term.

He is also expected to join this exclusive club of CCP legends when he officially receives the title of “Leader of the People.”

Despite these important honours, Xi’s legacy will still not be secure.

Just showing ambition to take Taiwan will cement Xi’s place as a remarkable person in China’s history.

Failure to do so could leave him vulnerable to reprisals from his internal party rivals and leave him facing an uncertain fate.

Beijing recently withdrew its pledge not to send troops to Taiwan after taking power.(Reuters: Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Why a meeting is so important now

Taiwan considers itself a democracy, but since the Chinese Revolution of 1949, China has viewed the island as just a renegade province, sharing the same racial and cultural identity.

The CCP’s extensive campaign to legitimize China’s claim to Taiwan has deeply rooted the idea in the minds of the Chinese people.

From schoolchildren to residents of nursing homes, there is a phrase every Chinese hears: “Taiwan is an inseparable part of China.”

It is also the last scar that reminds people of the “century of humiliation” of the nation by the West.

After taking control of Tibet in the 1950s and Hong Kong and Macao in the 1990s, Taiwan is now the only piece of territory missing from communist China to form the Middle Kingdom.

Bringing the island back into the fold is the obvious last step.

A giant poster in the street of China.
Xi has more strongly asserted the country’s sovereignty claims over disputed areas than his predecessors.(Reuters: Thomas Pierre)

Iron-fisted Uncle Xi

Xi himself has made it clear that Taiwan is a priority and that he would be ready to use force if necessary.

Since Mao, all Chinese leaders had been cautious in their dealings with Taiwan.

From absolute secession, Beijing and Taipei slowly found ways to establish economic, trade and cultural ties in the early 2000s.

That was until August 2019, when Xi imposed economic sanctions on Taipei for seeking greater independence, showing his condescending views on the island.

Xi was once best known for being anti-corruption and pro-people. People called President Xi Dada – Uncle Xi – with a sense of respect and closeness.

But a decade later, he is known for his repressive policies and for using an iron fist in China’s domestic affairs and diplomacy.

Xi’s policies on Xinjiang and Hong Kong have shown the world his determination to suppress all public dissent.

Uyghurs and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan have always been seen by Beijing as separatist forces under Western influence.

In an hour-long speech marking the centenary of the CCP’s founding last year, he pledged to complete “reunification” with Taiwan and “crush” any attempt at formal independence.

And ahead of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit last month – intended to show US support for Taiwan’s independence – Xi told US President Joe Biden ” those who play with fire will perish.”

Since then, Beijing has further hardened its stance on Taiwan, withdrawing its pledge not to send troops or administrators to the island after retaking it.

In pursuit of Mao

So what would it mean for Xi if he could reunite Taiwan with the mainland?

For the majority of Taiwan’s 23 million people, he would become the man who stole the democracy and freedom they had enjoyed for decades.

But in communist China, he would probably equal or even surpass Mao Zedong’s position as the country’s greatest leader.

Even as the founding leader of China, Mao failed to end the division between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

It would also secure Xi’s grip on power.

In 2018, Xi removed China’s two-term limit on the presidency from the country’s constitution, paving the way for him to stay in power for life.

The reunification of Taiwan would arguably render his position as supreme leader unassailable as long as he chose to remain in that role.

A man stands in front of posters of the Chinese national leader.
Propaganda promoting the virtues of Xi Jinping can be seen on the main streets of every Chinese city.(Reuters: Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Uncertain timing

Some Chinese believe Xi is determined to invade Taiwan and war is only a matter of time.

However, ahead of the CCP congress in October, the status quo supports Xi’s argument that he should have another term – China faces a historic challenge and needs a strong leader to defend the nation.

Beyond October, opinions differ on how long Xi will wait before resorting to drastic measures.

Some argue that the longer Beijing waits, the stronger China’s military capability will be.

But there are also people who think a war will never happen, because an independent Taiwan is useful as an external threat that requires Xi to remain in control.

A woman holding a Chinese national flag and a poster.
Reunification with Taiwan is a top priority for Chinese nationalists.(Reuters: Stephen Lam)

The danger of inaction

There is a danger for Xi in waiting too long to act.

Since taking office, he has made reunification a key part of his program.

Failure to integrate or subjugate Taiwan would ultimately undermine the Chinese people’s confidence in their rule.

Deng Yuwen, a former Communist Party newspaper editor who now lives in the United States, said the country’s nationalists could not accept inaction in Taiwan.

“He says every day that he wants to reunite Taiwan because China is already a powerful country,” Deng said.

“At the end of the day, he’s spreading all this propaganda while Taiwan is still breaking away. It’s just inexcusable to the people.”

Deng said Xi wanted to be a dictator and the invasion of Taiwan was an excuse for him to assume total power.

“If Taiwan is not reunified, it shows that what it is doing now lacks conviction,” he said.

While the CCP presents a united face to the world, Xi still has powerful rivals who aspire to overthrow him and take his place.

Deng said if Xi wins a third term this year, he would have a deadline to realize his signature “Chinese Dream” – the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation that includes Taiwan.

“The next five years will be a very dangerous time for him, because the only reason he can continue his future term [after that] is Taiwan,” Deng said.