• 20 June, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

When Beijing Was Burning Xi was Playing Personal Games

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Mon, 08 Aug 2022   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

A great fire destroyed Rome for six days in the summer of AD 64. Famous Roman historian of that time, Tacitus, recorded that 70 percent of the city was destroyed and half of the city’s residents were displaced. Roman ruler Nero was accused of being indifferent, ineffective, and careless. The end result of this neglect was that the Roman public suffered. Thus came the saying — “When Rome was burning, Nero was playing the flute.”

Today China, under its President Xi Jinping, is in a similar situation. It faces increased challenges. Some of those are:

  • Corruption and Localized Unrest
  • Pollution and Environmental Issues
  • Slowest Growth Rate in Four Decades
  • Plummeting Birth Rate
  • Disputes and Increased Tension With Neighboring Nations

However, the country’s leadership (read Xi Jinping) is indulging in activities based on nationalism rather than the solid building blocks that were the hallmark of China’s rise. So, is the hoo blah surrounding the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on 2-3 August 2022 one such avoidable activity, or was it a well-thought-out strategy?

Corruption and Localized Unrest

China’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) stood at 45 in 2021, placing it 66th in the world. It was a slight improvement over the 39 CPI of 2018. In the Inequality Index, China scores 38.9, putting it behind all its neighbors.

As far as corruption is concerned, China has improved in the last decade. However, most of the corruption cases have been to settle scores. The corruption charges have become a tool in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hand to test loyalty and purge anyone opposing him.

Today China is among the 20 percent most unequal societies in the world. Communism has one solution for every problem, a slogan. So, in 2021, Xi Jinping launched a campaign under the banner of “common prosperity.” It was supposedly a national strategy to lift the poor and crack down on powerful industries. However, by 2022, inequality has further increased the divide between the rich and the poor.

While I write this, scores of Chinese citizens are left with frozen accounts and nonfunctional ATMs. Most property builders have defaulted on deliveries, local administration under the garb of Covid-19 has unleashed draconian laws, and privacy has vanished from an individual’s life. 1,80,000 government-acknowledged annual mass protests showcase the ordinary Chinese citizen’s plight.

Pollution and Environmental Issues

If corruption and inequality were not enough, this year’s sweltering weather has made up for it. The temperatures have exceeded 44 degrees in Yunnan and Hebei provinces. 131 weather stations around China have recorded temperatures above historical highs. In 68 cities, the extraordinary rise in temperatures triggered red alerts. From across China, there were reports of roofs of buildings buckling and roads melting due to excessive temperatures. The coastal water levels were at the highest ever, along with a decline in sea ice.

In the past 70 years, China’s average ground temperatures have risen much sharper than the global average. Since 1951, the rise has been 0.26 degrees per decade compared to the worldwide average of 0.15 degrees. There is no sign of abatement, and as per the Chinese officials, the temperatures will remain significantly higher in the foreseeable future.

China has 22 percent of the world population with just 7 percent of the arable land. 27 percent of China is covered in desert. The desert has crept up to within 44 miles from Beijing. The Gobi Desert crawls south at a pace of 2 miles per year. All of China could be a big desert in times to come. If indications are to be believed, then China is heading for a severe food shortage and eventually a major famine.

To overcome that threat, this year, China hoarded half of the world’s food grain, creating a famine-like situation in many African nations. China will continue to accumulate more food grain than it needs, in the years to come, making conditions from bad to worst. In the southern region, rice crops and fruit and vegetables are at risk, whereas in Xinjiang melting glaciers are causing floods and damaging the cotton crop.

The effect of scorching heat has seen record power demand from various regions. Authorities had to cut electricity to factories at peak hours to keep air conditioners running. China is the world’s biggest coal consumer and major emitter of greenhouse gases. Energy demand has already forced authorities to approve new coal mines and power plants.

Slowest Growth Rate in Four Decades

China is in a Catch-22 situation. If energy demands are not met, then the economy suffers. If energy demands are met, the environment suffers. Once again, the economy wins, and the environment loses. Under the garb of Pelosi’s visit, China has also canceled climate talks with the USA.

Whatever it may be, bitter economic truth stares at China. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has cut China’s growth projection by 1.1 percent to 3.3 percent for 2022 and 1.3 percent to 4.6 percent for 2023, which would be its slowest growth in more than four decades. If that was not sufficient, China also recorded its weakest quarter in more than two years. Gross domestic product expanded by 0.4 percent in the second quarter. It is the worst performance since 2020, when the pandemic erupted, and Wuhan became the first city in the world to lock down due to Covid-19.

It is total economic chaos in China. Xi Jinping’s haphazard directives and settling personal scores with tech giants have added fuel to the fire. The greed of local governments in connivance with the Chinese construction and property companies has led to mismanagement, resulting in slumped sales. The situation is so bad that debt-ridden local governments are forced to cut the pay of civil servants, and many small businesses have shut down due to rising costs and weak sales.

Plummeting Birth Rate

The relationship between population growth and economic growth is contentious. China’s fertility rate has officially fallen to 1.6 children per woman, though the actual numbers could be much lower. Chinese experts have provided a stern warning to the country’s leadership — “China is facing its most sharp decline in population in decades. This would set the stage for potential demographic, economic, and even political crises in the near future.”

While everything else is acceptable to the Chinese leadership, the last point of political crises is highly objectionable to the political class. They would do anything to remain in power.

Courtesy: New York Times

Disputes and Increased Tension With Neighboring Nations

China has the largest number of neighbors in the world. The neighbors are Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Indian territory of POJ&K, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Myanmar, Mongolia, Nepal, North Korea, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. There are also maritime neighbors like Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. China has not even a single neighbor who attaches high trust value to their relationship with China.

As per strategic expert Bertil Lintner — “China has long stoked and sustained borderland disputes as a tactic to win concessions with its neighbours.” China is applying same tactics with India. That is the reason that India’s trade deficit in the financial year 2021-22 grew to a record $72.9 billion, despite the continuous border tension.

The 20th National Congress And Xi’s Compulsions

Pelosi’s trip to the Indo-Pacific region was a God sent gift for Xi Jinping. The 20th National Congress of the CCP is round the corner. Xi Jinping with so many problems over his head was thrilled and grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He had two simple options; she would come or should she wouldn’t. Samuel Johnson’s 1775 famous pronouncement — patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, is applicable in every age. Xi Jinping’s last refuge is also patriotism and nationalism.

China applied wolf warrior tactics to dissuade Pelosi from visiting Taiwan. If she had cowed down that would have been the best win for Xi Jinping. However, she pressed on with her trip. Even a stop in Taiwan was not bad from Xi’s perspective. It presented the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bouquet of opportunities:

  • Escalate the situation in the South China Sea and bully ASEAN partners. It will extend the — ‘I will punish you’ policy to any country that China feels is going along with its enemies. India continues to see that first hand.
  • Terrorize Taiwan and other countries at will. 68 PLAAF aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ and 13 warships entered their territorial water, within three days of Pelosi’s visit. China fired 11 missiles that flew over Taiwan’s airspace. Conducted live firing drills in the Yellow Sea and Bohai sea.
  • Most countries out of fear have started accepting and endorsing China’s bad behavior. Iran, Syria, Russia and the Palestinian Authority have denounced Pelosi’s visit. India and the European Union have kept mum.
  • The visit forced the U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to order the Pentagon to postpone a planned launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile test for the second time.
  • It draws the Chinese citizens away from the day-to-day challenges into the farce of nationalism.
  • Despite initial disappointment, the Chinese social media data shows that the citizens are rejoicing the Chinese bullying in the South China Sea.
  • Eventually it gives a massive boost to Xi Jinping’s strong leader image before the 20th National Congress of the CCP.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s move was gutsy one and has exposed the real Chinese intentions preternaturally. However, overall the visit has given the advantage to Xi Jinping and the CCP. The U.S. intelligence community assesses that China would mount a full-fledged invasion of Taiwan in next 18 months. This coincides with my three years old assessment of 2025.

The biggest affected party would be Taiwan in this great power competition. Beijing has already initiated economic sanctions on Taiwanese agricultural and manufacturing products. It would also become reckless towards any foreign military plane or ship in the region. Unless it is a well-thought-out strategy, President Biden’s approach until now has been very timid, and that doesn’t work with China. China thrives on an appeasement and subservient approach.

In the end, it is the Chinese citizens who have to call Xi Jinping’s bluff. They cannot allow Xi Jinping to play his games while the rest of China burns.

“You uphold your dignity till the time you do not surrender your independence” ~ Insightful Geopolitics


A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.


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Gary Rintel

Aug 23, 2022
C.A. Post is falling for the tough rhetoric the GOP uses to attack China verbally. And then spins a bizarre theory that Pelosi wanted Xi to invade. Its the opposite. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton knew Trump’s sympathies better than most. Trump’s into Dictators and his M.O. is to be difficult so the payoff is higher in time. Bolton declared that Trump would not come to Taiwan’s aid. Maybe Pompeo might if President? No one knows what DeSantos believes. Commander Sandeep Dhawan knows China as well as anyone. I wish he’d comment more as I always learn a lot. Xi is reckless but wise enough to delay invasion until 2025. January 7th 2025 specifically after SCOTUS’ coming 2023 precedent permits a second attempt at “alternate elector” scam (setting off a possible US Civil War or scattered violence). Unfortunately Commander Dhawan seems tight-lipped about India’s key role in any counter-attack if Taiwan is invaded. Perhaps he doesn’t want to risk alienating PM Nerandra Modi with any contrary advice. Of all China’s neighbors, India can align with the US, Taiwan, S. Korea, Australia and Japan to make Xi regret invading. I agree that the CPC’s chauvinistic nationalism via its wolf-warrior “diplomats” towards its neighbors succeeded in wresting trade deficit concessions. Which only emboldens more saber-rattling and “rally-round-the-flag” distractions from countless domestic challenges. If only Commander Sandeep Dhawan, Ian Bremmer and Bertil Lintner could a round-table on these issues. Too many on the US Right-Wing are acting unaware of the link between Steve Bannon’s Leninistic “burn it all down” nihilism and Xi Jinping and Putin capitalizing on the coming US divisions.

GP Singh

Aug 15, 2022
Great reading


Aug 13, 2022
Cdr Dhawan, my comment regards Speaker Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. It would be interesting to discover if she has had meetings with any of Xi's representatives since Biden was elected. Support for Taiwan will be much stronger under a Republican administration and Xi may have been looking for a reason to reunify Taiwan to the mainland BEFORE America's 2024 elections. So why would the Speaker of the House suddenly instigate a conflict with Beijing in conflict with the White House, if not to provide Xi with an excuse to move quickly against Taiwan while we have an ineffective defense posture under the current administration? Let the "conspiracy theories" begin! 😄

Deovrat Pagay

Aug 10, 2022
An excellent insight into China’s ideology. 1962 debacle is a proof as regards her commitment to her neighbors and the world.

Rajesh Dhawan

Aug 10, 2022
Once again nicely written facts & figure about what is happening at present at China and around. As I told earlier, China would never go for full fledged war and after seeing Ukraine war, they will think twice on that. It will not attack Taiwan because it knows that it has more to lose than gain. No-one will come to it's support except may be N. Korea. India is sitting strong at present.

Randhir Punia

Aug 10, 2022
A very well explained situation. Hope the better sense takes the lead.....

Cdr NK Kulkarni

Aug 10, 2022
Although China feels that it can never be on a sticky wicket or in a catch 22 situation primarily due to its uncalculative brazen outlook towards global affairs, yet the visit by US diplomat to Taiwan, could highly infuse a right to invade mindset by China, keeping the Russian precedence in mind. Moreso, the feeling that China feels that it will not be militarily opposed in such a venture by other nations, after seeing similar apprehensions by EU & US towards Russia. Thus China is now emboldened. A well written perspective by Sandeep Dhawan, substantiated by hard facts


Aug 09, 2022
Another well researched and well written article. When US does anything, it has thoroughly factored the consequences and ensures momentum is always with them and only them. How this situation unfolds in coming days especially in China, time will tell.

Prem Kumar sinha

Aug 09, 2022
My reading is that Xi will create an incident only as a pretext to invade Taiwan. Maybe it will be a limited attack to improve his TRP ratings. Knowing US, I dont think they will support with boots on the ground, particularly with all the negative rating it will generate in their country . US will also not take a direct stand but will support with arms. Taiwan is such a tiny country that doing a blitzkrieg by China and taking over the controls will be easy. At this Xi will not like to damage the country's manufacturing infrastructure. In particular, the chip industry control itself will be the biggest gain for them.

Sukhjit singh

Aug 09, 2022
As usual great insightful article Always a pleasure to read.

Cdr Ravi Mathews

Aug 09, 2022
A nice article

Gp Capt Hemant Kumar

Aug 09, 2022
A very frank and accurate analysis. Sandeep does not mince words in his analysis and mirrors China's true nature accurately. A nation that stokes instability around the world with a petty mindset and definitely does not deserve its seat in the UN Permanent Members list.

Rakesh P

Aug 09, 2022
Cdr Sandeep, this is one of the finest write-ups on the topic I have recently read. Thank you for keeping us updated.

Arvind pande

Aug 09, 2022
Very well written indepth insight of Chinese policy. Most of the world is facing similar climatic changes. But Chinese policy to dominate world is may be to Mach US bullying policy n satisfy dictatorship of Xi...

Cdr Deepak Singh

Aug 08, 2022
Either China will die it's own death or something major is expected. Why won't Russia support China, US sounds bullying or uncertain. Waiting for your next article Dear Sandeep.


Aug 08, 2022
It takes a sharp mind for such an incisive analysis. Well done sir


Aug 08, 2022
In depth researched article. It is time chinese citizens should realize and act against the games played with them.

Gp Capt Raghavan

Aug 08, 2022
Good article. There is a significant amount of brittleness in the overall power matrix of China, something that you take pains to bring out. The US Speaker's visit to Taiwan couldn't have happened without a rigorous Assessment by the US strategic community and US Govt, knowing well what song and dance the Chinese would do about it. It is the military posturing that the US wanted to draw out and gauge. Have the Americans got what they wanted? Was it a god send for Xi. Yes it was. Was the reaction from the Chinese a little over the top? Probably so, Because the world at large believes China is not yet ready to run the Taiwan gauntlet. 2025 seems too close. Can't put my finger on it but the Chinese would stand to lose a a major amount of world market dominance if they did that. Their current power stems from the fact that they are the world's default factory. The flight of manufacturing away from China is but a trickle right now. China won't deliberately provoke a mudslide. Meanwhile , the bullying tactics, the feint and thrust and arm twisting of smaller nations in their economic clutch would continue.


Aug 08, 2022
Good insightful reading. Waiting for more.


Aug 08, 2022
Good article. Your article highlights the brittleness in the Chinese Comprehensive power behind it's apparent steely facade. The US Speaker's visit to Taiwan couldn't have happened without a rigorous Assessment by the US strategic community and US Govt, knowing well what song and dance the Chinese would do about it. It is the military posturing that the US wanted to draw out and gauge. Have the Americans got what they wanted? Was it a god send for Xi. Yes it was. Was the reaction from the Chinese a little over the top? Probably so, Because the world at large believes China is not yet ready to run the Taiwan gauntlet. 2025 seems too close. Can't put my finger on it but the Chinese would stand to lose a a major amount of world market dominance if they did that. Their current power stems from the fact that they are the world's default factory. The flight of manufacturing away from China is but a trickle right now. China won't deliberately provoke a mudslide. Not until a decade or more. Meanwhile , the bullying tactics, the feint and thrust and arm twisting of smaller nations in their economic clutch would continue.

Wendell Bruges

Aug 08, 2022
As always, an excellent analysis of the present crisis in the South China Sea. And we all thought that Pelosi’s visit did good for Taiwan.

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