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How much trouble is Xi really in? Outgunned Taiwan may be about to find out

<span>Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters

Smart, combative, handsome, Qin Gang was fast-tracked to stardom. As a protege of Xi Jinping, China’s dictator-president, the precocious “wolf warrior” diplomat rose to the giddy heights of foreign minister at age 56. Then, last summer, he vanished. It was as if he had been deleted, physically and digitally, as if he had never existed. He has yet to re-materialise.

Qin’s mysterious disappearance sparked wild, often prurient media speculation. Beijing has still not offered an official explanation. But Chinese online reports, which significantly went uncensored, implied he was disgraced after secretly fathering a child in an affair with a well-known TV reporter. This seemed like plausible grounds for defenestration.

“Senior politician in sex scandal!” Hardly an original idea. Yet there is an alternative, similarly unsubstantiated, less prosaic theory about Qin’s fall from grace. This posits the love child yarn was a smokescreen. Qin, it is rumoured, was a James Bond-style spy who passed nuclear secrets to the CIA or MI6 and was unmasked by Russia, which tipped off its Chinese ally.

Is this true? Who knows. Western intelligence agencies would never let on, nor would a humiliated Beijing. Yet the fact the spy theory lives on in whispers behind closed doors speaks to a dark truth about Xi’s China: anything is believable – and everything is unknowable – in a silenced, shuttered, totalitarian society dominated by fear of one man. It’s what author Evan Osnos calls China’s “age of malaise”

Since taking power in 2012, Xi has cracked down hard on dissent, difference and debate as part of a drive to tighten Communist party control over all aspects of Chinese life. This might have worked, Osnos argues, had he delivered prosperity in exchange. Instead, the economy is struggling, unemployment and debt are high, business confidence is low, and China is at odds with the west. Subterranean discontent among the public and elites occasionally breaks the surface.

Was there a plot to oust Xi? Qin’s was not the only high-profile disappearance last summer. Another Xi protege, defence minister Li Shangfu, also vanished abruptly. “Other victims include the generals in charge of China’s nuclear weapons program and some of the most senior officials overseeing the Chinese financial sector. Several of these former Xi acolytes have apparently died in custody,” said an anonymous corespondent for Politico.

“What’s different today is that officials being neutralised are not members of hostile political factions but loyalists from the inner ring of Xi’s own clique, leading to serious questions over the regime’s stability,” the report said. The subsequent death in October in a Shanghai swimming pool of Li Keqiang, a popular former prime minister and Xi rival, has intensified suspicions about a wider intrigue.

The whole thrust of Xi’s austere, almost puritanical leadership, indefinitely perpetuated by abolition of presidential term limits, has been to promote discipline, conformity, homogeneity and political unity in pursuit of his vision of 21st century Chinese global hegemony. Any suggestion his monolithic regime is cracking under internal strains is itself deeply destabilising – and therefore taboo.

Another recent incident, this time in international waters, has raised fresh doubts about Xi’s not-so-great helmsmanship. Normally cold-sober Finland last week made an extraordinary allegation: that a Chinese container ship deliberately sabotaged a Baltic Sea gas pipeline connecting it to Estonia. “I think everything indicates it was intentional,” Anders Adlercreutz, minister of European affairs, said.

Finland and Estonia are Nato members, at odds with Russia over Ukraine. The incident recalled the blowing-up of the Nord Stream pipelines between Russia and Germany last year. It also coincides with what Helsinki says is a Russian hybrid warfare operation along its border, where Moscow is in effect using asylum-seekers as weapons.

Xi says there are “no limits” to his partnership with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The US and the EU complain he is already assisting Moscow’s war effort by buying oil and supplying dual-use microchips and drones. Beijing often confronts American navy ships and planes in the Taiwan Strait. Did Xi decide to deniably flex his muscles in the Baltic, too, as a favour to a friend?

EU leaders had a rare opportunity to gauge Xi’s state of mind last week in a face-to-face meeting in Beijing. Ursula von der Leyen, commission president, demanded he help deter “Russian aggression” and fix a record €400bn trade imbalance with the EU. She was politely fobbed off. Perhaps the great man’s thoughts were straying elsewhere.

His multiple domestic problems exacerbated by a growing backlash in Japan, South Korea, India, south-east Asia and the west to China’s aggressive geopolitical and trade policies, Xi has adopted a slightly more conciliatory line of late. He was all smiles last month when he met US president Joe Biden in San Francisco and agreed to try to defuse bilateral tensions.

But his bedrock determination that China eventually supplant the US as world number one has not changed. If Xi is indeed facing internal challenges threatening his personal grip on power and the stability of his regime, how he reacts to Taiwan presidential and parliamentary elections next month could be instructive – and potentially alarming.

Beijing regards self-ruling, US-backed Taiwan as its property. Xi has threatened to seize the island by force. China mounts almost daily military provocations. It says voters face a choice between war and peace when deciding whether to keep the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party in power. The DPP currently leads the polls.

Is this a bluff, mere rhetoric? Or will a weakened, insecure Xi, needing a big win to see off his enemies and stabilise his regime, and mindful of US election-year distractions and wars in Europe and Palestine, risk it all in 2024 for a historic, legacy-burnishing “reunification” triumph? Most western analysts say “no”. But that’s what they said about a Ukraine invasion.