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US Officials Highlight Depth of China’s Economic Crisis

CCP's capacity to invade Taiwan much reduced by domestic woes, says Biden
Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: September 13, 2023
US President Joe Biden pictured while holding a meeting with Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh at the Government Office in Hanoi on September 11, 2023. Biden stressed that his visit to Vietnam was not about "containing" China, but securing a U.S. base in the region. (Image: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Following meetings with their counterparts from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), officials of the Biden administration, including U.S. President Joe Biden himself, have noted Beijing’s unusual straightforwardness when it comes to the woes they face in sectors such as real estate, youth unemployment, and technological backwardness.

Describing her trip to China late this August in an interview with the Washington Post, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo spoke about how PRC officials at various levels of administration admitted to the economic difficulties the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces.

For example, Shanghai CCP secretary Chen Jining told Raimondo that China’s “economic rebound is a bit lackluster” as compared with forecasts, and requested “stable bilateral ties in terms of trade and business” with the U.S.

Notably, the “word ‘Taiwan’ did not come up once. They gave us very, very little rhetoric or lecturing,” Raimondo said of her meetings with the Chinese.

In recent years, PRC officials have prominently stressed the importance of their claim to Taiwan, which has seen greater diplomatic support from the U.S. and allies as Communist Chinese fighters and ships go on periodic patrols menacing the self-governing island.

Biden: Xi ‘has his hands full’

President Biden, meanwhile, made remarks on the poor state of China’s economy and commented on what it might mean for the CCP’s political priorities. His statements were published on the website of the White House on Sept. 10.

The president had just finished trips to India for the G20 meeting — at which Chinese leader Xi Jinping was conspicuously absent — as well as Vietnam, where Biden said he was more interested in securing “a stable base in the Indo-Pacific” than “containing” China by courting its southern neighbor.

Xi “has his hands full now,” Biden said, noting that the head of the CCP “has overwhelming unemployment with his youth,” and that “one of the major economic tenets of his plan isn’t working at all.” There’s “real difficulty in terms of their economy of late, particularly in real estate.”

Echoing the president on China’s real estate woes, “there was no pretending that wasn’t happening,” Raimondo added in her remarks to the Washington Post. In addition, “they repeatedly said the U.S. is ahead of China in artificial intelligence,” she said, referring to the Chinese officials she met.

In lieu of a meeting with Xi, Biden instead talked briefly with PRC premier Li Qiang, a meeting he noted “wasn’t confrontational at all,” according to the White House readout.

The Chinese authorities did not publish an official readout of the Li-Biden meeting, though the PRC Foreign Ministry commended it as an opportunity to step up exchanges.

Difficult for Beijing to mount invasion of Taiwan

In particular, Biden downplayed the danger of a potential attack on Taiwan by the PRC, given the economic and political malaise Xi Jinping and the CCP overall find themselves in.

Taiwan was politically separated from the rest of China in 1949, when the Republic of China (ROC) government retreated to the island after being overthrown by communist rebels on the mainland. Since then, the CCP has always seen “liberating” or “recovering” Taiwan (and extinguishing the ROC) a core part of its ideological agenda.

“China has a difficult economic problem right now for a whole range of reasons that relate to international growth and lack thereof and the policies that China has followed,” President Biden said on Sept. 10.

“I don’t think it’s going to cause China to invade Taiwan. And matter of fact, the opposite — it probably doesn’t have the same capacity that it had before.”

Xi is “trying to figure out what to do about the particular crisis they’re having now. But I don’t think it’s a crisis relating to conflict between China and the United States,” Biden added.

The Chinese economy has experienced very little rebound following the lifting of its ruinous “zero-COVID” measures, which stalled industry, locked hundreds of millions in their homes for weeks on end, and triggered major protests across the country, some even calling for the removal of the Communist Party and Xi’s resignation.

Official statistics revealed that China has a youth unemployment rate of over 20 percent, a figure experts say could be far higher in reality. And recent developments have seen Chinese real estate giants Evergrande and Country Garden hard-pressed to make loan repayments — or even restructure their debt — portending deeper crisis for the mainland Chinese real estate bubble.

US weighing in on Chinese regime politics?

Speaking on Sept. 11 at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York, Republican Mike Gallagher said that contrary to Biden’s assertions that an invasion of Taiwan would be less likely on account of China’s economic weakness, “it’s equally as plausible that, as China confronts serious economic and demographic issues, Xi Jinping could get more risk accepting, and could get less predictable and do something very stupid.” 

He recommended that the U.S. step up efforts to deter an invasion through a “robust and smart investment in hard power.”

Meanwhile, Xi’s absence at the G20 meeting — news of which broke days before the event held in India’s capital of New Delhi — came on the heels of other odd behavior by, and rumors surrounding, the Chinese leader and other CCP officials.

Late in August, Xi skipped a speech he was scheduled to make at the BRICS summit in South Africa, leaving an aide to deliver it instead. Furthermore, instead of returning to Beijing, Xi flew straight to China’s far-flung Xinjiang region — a sudden break from habit some analysts speculated could have been related to concerns Xi had about his personal safety.

Prior to that, a round of shakeups affected the PRC Foreign Affairs Ministry and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, which controls most of China’s strategic nuclear arsenal. Newly promoted Foreign Affairs Minister Qin Gang, a close ally of Xi, disappeared for a whole month before an official announcement was made regarding his dismissal from the post.

On Sept. 7, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel wrote in a post on X: “First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks. Who’s going to win this unemployment race? China’s youth or Xi’s cabinet?” 

Meanwhile, a U.S. official told Nikkei Asia that Li was “absent” due to corruption charges.

“The issue the Chinese military has had for many years is too large for Xi to resolve, and it may affect what Xi wants to achieve,” said the official, whom the Sept. 12 Nikkei report did not identify by name.

According to SinoInsider, a political risk consultancy that specializes in Chinese elite politics, it would normally be far-fetched to assume that a Chinese defense minister’s absence from the public eye means that he has been purged, given the low-key nature that PLA military officials have traditionally assumed under the CCP.

However, “it cannot be ruled out that the U.S. has credible information about an investigation into Li and decided to leak the news through Ambassador Emanuel,” SinoInsider wrote in a Sept. 14 analysis published as part of a newsletter.

Should this be the case, “then the Biden administration could be taking advantage of what appears to be growing political instability in the CCP and the regime’s worsening internal and external crises to pile pressure on Xi Jinping,” the analysis continued.