Xi tested as Chinese nationalists bristle at Pelosi Taiwan visit

The political fallout from the recent visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, continues to reverberate in China.

Pelosi’s visit to the self-governing democracy, which China claims as its own territory, is testing Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s resolve at a politically sensitive time.

Xi is edging closer to securing an unprecedented third term as head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party at its upcoming 20th National Congress in November.

Yet as China reacts to the Pelosi visit with a show of military force, Xi is likely weighing the economic costs and diplomatic fallout with the US and its allies against his need to act tough on Taiwan as soaring nationalist sentiment within China pushes for him to do more.

“It’s put him (Xi) in an impossible position,” Stephen Nagy, a Tokyo-based China analyst and senior fellow at Canada’s MacDonald-Laurier Institute, told Al Jazeera.

“He has to maintain economic growth, which would be severely hampered by any kinetic response to the US and the increasing international recognition of Taiwan as a political entity,” Nagy said.

“Yet he is under tremendous pressure from nationalist forces inside China, who expect a strong response to what they understand to be a clear violation of the ‘One China Policy’… I’m doubtful he can strike this balance.”

‘Not finished yet’

China is staging its largest-ever military exercises in waters surrounding Taiwan, including firing missiles over the island.

Chinese authorities have also banned imports of over 2,000 Taiwanese food products and halted sand exports to Taiwan, while this week Taiwan’s government websites were hit by overseas cyberattacks.

“It’s not finished yet,” said Nagy. “I expect more provocative military activity from China in the coming months … we can also expect more cyberattacks, restrictions on Taiwanese businesses operating in China, and even secondary sanctions to increase the pressure on Taiwan’s friends.”

The escalating aggression is partly a response to growing calls from the Chinese public for more drastic action.

On August 2, the evening Pelosi landed, Chinese social media blew up with anti-American vitriol in what many Chinese netizens called a “sleepless night”.

By the next morning, about a dozen nationalistic hashtags about “reunification” – some pushed by Chinese state media – had generated several billion views on the microblogging platform Weibo.

“This was a truly international event and something that was very much developing in real-time,” Manya Koetse, a veteran analyst of Chinese social media and editor-in-chief of WhatsonWeibo, told Al Jazeera.

Koetse likened the response to Pelosi’s visit to the nationalist wave unleashed when Chinese netizens tracked the homecoming flight of former Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou after she was released by Canada last year.

“But of course, this time Nancy Pelosi was not welcome,” she added.

“So many millions of people were watching it (the flight tracker) together … and there was state media propaganda posts and military jargon flying around and it felt like a lot of netizens were really preparing for something to happen,” she said.

“And then came the moment she arrived … and people felt disappointed and angry that the ‘old witch’, as they call her, had landed and China did not prevent it,” she said. “There was a sense that ‘she got away with it way too easily’,” Koetse said.

‘Countermeasures’

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper, who is known for his bellicosity toward Taiwan, expressed regret that Beijing did not deliver the muscular response the public hoped for.

Yet another renowned online commentator, Ren Yi, slammed Hu for creating unrealistic expectations among the people, which would “damage morale” and “exhaust government credibility”.

On Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying requested the public to be patient and pledged the US and Taiwan would “gradually and persistently feel the countermeasures”.

“Hu played a big role since he’d suggested Pelosi’s escort planes could be shot down,” Koetse said.

“Nothing like this happened, but some people actually expected something like that.”

‘People are still extremely angry’

“There was a shift on August 2,” Leo Chu, a research assistant at US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute who hails from China’s Anhui province, told Al Jazeera.

“Beforehand, the visit had been about China-US rivalry… but after Pelosi landed in Taipei, people began to talk about it as an issue of reunification. People are still extremely angry at the US, but they now believe the answer is not shooting down Pelosi’s plane but in reunification,” he said.

Xi remains under pressure to respond, according to China analyst Nagy.

“China may not be a democracy, but the party needs to respond to its citizen’s sentiments about issues critical to the Chinese people,” Nagy said.

“People are raised to understand these issues through a nationalist lens and many will then wonder why Xi is not standing up to what they perceive as their ‘core interests.’”

‘The anti-Xi faction’

China’s censors, which control the online discourse in the country, may have been too slow in curbing netizens’ nationalist fervour, according to Koetse.

“Topics such as Xinjiang or Taiwan are usually very sensitive, and discussion of them censored quickly,” Koetse said.

“But the moment they can be framed within a nationalistic narrative, as happened this time, you’ll see the censorship relax … you then see hundreds of thousands of new messages flooding Chinese social media,” she said.

“Yet immediately following Pelosi’s landing Weibo became unreachable for a lot of people as servers were dealing with ‘some issues’… it’s rumoured Weibo was blocked at that moment just to cool down nationalist sentiments,” she added.

The visit may also have triggered more invasive forms of monitoring to ensure academic conformity with Xi’s official response.

Nagy said Chinese researchers told him in the past week that Party authorities at universities requested they install software on their phones to protect against alleged cyberattacks from abroad. The academics suspect the software is to monitor their conversations.

“This could be partly to ensure tighter control of the domestic narrative … Beijing does not want to see the same criticism surface about its handling of this crisis as happened with China’s response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine earlier in the year,” Nagy said.

Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, five prominent Chinese historians published an open letter condemning Putin and calling on China to denounce the war. Censors removed the letter within three hours.

Xi will also look to stifle dissent within the party’s ranks too, as his opponents watch for signs of weakness in his response to the Pelosi visit.

“The anti-Xi faction see the past 10 years of his rule as taking China backwards. Its relations with West have deteriorated, global favourability is at all-time lows and the economy, both structurally and geopolitically, is in a worse place than it was a decade ago,” Nagy said.

“Many in this faction see Xi has put Chinese elites in a weaker position internationally … and will interpret this visit as Pelosi poking Xi in the eye, and causing him to lose face in the build-up to the National Congress when he is supposed to cement his legacy alongside Mao,” he added.

Despite the internal opposition, Nagy does not think the Taiwan issue will endanger Xi’s chances of securing a third term, saying only a devastating new COVID-19 variant or natural disaster may pose such a risk at this stage.