Xi Declares China Prepared for Battle: Korean War Anniversary Shines Light on President’s Increasing Assertiveness

Chinese President Xi Jinping has used the 70th anniversary of his country’s entry into the Korean War to unleash a bombastic speech, full of defiant, nationalistic rhetoric. Amongst several newsworthy phrases, Xi declared:

The Chinese people understood that you must use the language that invaders can understand – to fight war with war and stop an invasion with force, earning peace and security through victory. The Chinese people will not create trouble but nor are we afraid, and no matter the difficulties or challenges that we face, our legs will not shake and our backs will not bend.

Xi is welcomed to his seat ahead of his speech commemorating China’s entry into the Korean War
Source: Straits Times

The timing of the anniversary is apt for Xi, coming just before the opening of the fifth plenary session of the 19th Communist Party Central Committee, during which China’s five year economic and development plan will be unveiled, in addition to Vision 2035, Xi’s blueprint for raising his people to high-income status. There is also the small matter of the US presidential election on the 3rd November at a time when Sino-American relations have reached a nadir since the normalisation of ties between the two superpowers.

Whilst Xi did not mention the US by name in his Korean War anniversary speech, the ‘Imperialist invaders’ he referred to ‘firing on the doorsteps of a new China’ could hardly be mistaken. Having repelled the initial invasion of South Korea by the communist North, and restored the boundary at the 38th Parallel, the US-led UN mission continued its offensive into North Korean territory until the Chinese border was in sight. A concerned Mao Zedong, potentially at the behest of Joseph Stalin but likely also driven by his own desires and internal pressures, decided to act.

On the 14th October 1950, 300,000 Chinese troops stormed across the Yalu River to attack the advancing UN forces. They were poorly-equipped but battle-hardened, having just emerged victorious in the Chinese Civil War. Mao would not countenance an American ally on his southern border and was prepared to sacrifice as many of his men as it would take to rebuff the ‘imperialist’ advance.

Chinese troops cross the Yalu River as they enter the Korean War
Source: China Underground

Mao’s ruthless expenditure of his own people is now legendary but back in 1950 it was not wholly clear to what desperate lengths he would go to push back the Western troops and curry favour with Stalin. After a few battles and skirmishes, the UN command was under no illusions. Unless they wanted to get bogged down in a protracted, unwinnable war – precisely what would later happen in Vietnam – they would need to negotiate an armistice.

Chinese troops advance on American positions during the Second Phase Campaign that pushed the UN forces back below the 38th Parallel
Source: Chinese Military Science Academy

As Jung Chang and Jon Halliday note in their biography of the Chinese dictator:

Mao knew that America just would not be able to compete in sacrificing men…[he] was convinced that America could not defeat him, because of his one fundamental asset – millions of expendable Chinese, including quite a few that he was pretty keen to get rid of. In fact, the war provided a perfect chance to consign former Nationalist [Kuomintang] troops to their deaths. These were men who had surrendered wholesale in the last stages of the civil war, and it was a deliberate decision on Mao’s part to send them into Korea, where they formed the bulk of the Chinese forces. In case UN troops should fail to do the job, there were special execution squads in the rear to take care of anyone hanging back (Chang & Halliday, p. 442)

A terrifying man, but one still revered by huge segments of the Chinese population, including the main main himself, Xi. The current president looks set to rule for life, or at least until physical or mental incapacitation prevents him from doing so. He has cultivated a strongman image at odds with Deng Xiaoping and his other post-Mao predecessors, striking a more assertive posture for China on the global stage, whilst seemingly reveling in America’s internal turmoil.

Xi seems to be resurrecting aspects of the ‘Great Helmsman’ Mao Zedong’s rule
Source: WSJ

Xi’s ruthless purges – disguised as corruption investigations – of his political enemies, his mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, militarisation of the South China Sea, suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and threats towards Taiwan are testament to a revisionist mindset not content with the status quo. With America withering under the self-destructive rule of the Trump administration, Xi has every reason to feel emboldened and his brazen speech over the Korean War anniversary is no surprise.

With China’s economy already rebounding from the coronavirus-inspired slump, and its military being modernised and streamlined so that it is far more evenly-matched with its American counterpart than it was in 1950, the outcome of a Sino-American war is far from a foregone conclusion.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy review in the South China Sea, 2018
Source: Getty Images

To prevent such a terrifying prospect occurring, to prevent another Korea or Vietnam, the next American administration needs to re-engage with Beijing. Washington should itself be assertive in its demands for responsible Chinese behaviour on the global stage, whilst seeking areas of common ground on which to build at least civil relations.

As ties between the two countries continue to sever, the potential for a grave misunderstanding in one of the myriad flashpoint zones of the Asia-Pacific could create the unthinkable and wind the clock back seventy years; American and Chinese forces shooting it out with one another, only with far more deadly weaponry and millions more lives at stake.

Source

Chang, J. & Halliday, J. Mao: the Unknown Story (2007)

UK Braced for First December Election Since 1923: Momentous Times Indeed

So, for the third time in four years the United Kingdom is set to return to the polls for a general election. As the Brexit debacle rumbles on and the opposition parties refuse both to back the government or offer a sensible way forward the proposed course of the country will, in theory, be left for the ‘people’ to decide.

Momentous times in Westminster

This year’s election is set for the 12th December and it is going to be the first December election since 1923. If the momentous nature of the 1923 election is replicated in 2019, we are in for another few interesting months.

Having assumed the Conservative Party leadership from the ailing Andrew Bonar Law earlier that year, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin gambled the Tory majority in parliament by calling an early election, believing he needed a proper mandate to govern.

Whilst the Conservatives remained the largest party in the House of Commons, they did not secure an outright majority in 1923, with the ascendant Labour Party and the Liberals of Herbert Asquith both taking a substantial share of the vote (in fact this was the last time three parties all secured more than 100 seats in a British election).

As today, the sensitive topic of immigration was on the minds of politicians in 1923

With a hung parliament called, it was the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald that formed its first ever government, a minority government tacitly supported by Asquith’s Liberals. So convinced was Asquith that Labour would fail miserably that he took the gamble of backing them in the hope that it would revive the fortunes of his flagging party.

The potential for another hung parliament in 2019 cannot be discounted, although the early odds from the bookies favour a Conservative majority. It is almost impossible to describe how disastrous and frustrating an outcome a hung parliament would be for Britain, let alone the possibility of a minority government. With the Brexit impasse seemingly unbreachable with parliament’s current make-up, the very least the country needs is an outright majority and a strong whip to batter through the government’s legislation.

Early 1920s Britain was a turbulent place. Recovery from the First World War was slow and painful, the economy was struggling and radical politics lingered in the polluted air. Uncertainty in government added to the discontent and unease of a nascent democracy. MacDonald’s reign lasted less than a year; he was ousted after a vote of no confidence triggered yet another election (in October 1924) which Baldwin duly won with a majority. The latter would stay in office for the next five years.

Ramsay MacDonald: a far more competent politician than his current successor

Undoubtedly the prospect of another five years of Boris Johnson at the helm is likely to terrify large swathes of the populace, even though he has a more clear vision of Britain’s break with the EU than any of his contemporaries. Johnson is divisive, both amongst the public and his own party, prone to gaffes and insensitive comments not befitting of a national leader. Yet his main opponent is characterised by a lack of principle, inconsistent policy pronouncements and a radical streak that will never have broad appeal.

Jeremy Corbyn is threatening to destroy the modern Labour Party, perhaps unsurprising given that he is somewhat of a throwback to its more radical days. It could be argued that Labour’s likely suffering in the December election is a positive development, re-opening the door for the Liberal Democrats and offering more fringe parties such as the Greens and Brexit an opportunity to create a more pluralistic political map in the UK.

Alternatively the Labour malaise under Corbyn could prompt the resurrection of former heavyweights, such as the party’s modern founder Tony Blair or David Milliband, whose failure to secure victory in the 2010 leadership contest against his brother Ed was a huge turning point in UK politics.

Corbyn’s failure to handle the anti-semitism scandal in his party has further discredited him among some traditional Labour supporters

Labour used their defeat in 1924 to rebuild and get greater experience of being in opposition, of challenging the government, of observing political practice and tactics. When MacDonald won the 1929 election he was ready to rule, serving as Prime Minister until 1935 both as leader of Labour and as part of a historic National Coalition that steered Britain through the Great Depression.

For Labour there can be no such resurgence under Corbyn, whose personality and politics are redundant. They should have ditched him long ago, though a lack of obvious alternatives has certainly hampered their cause. With Labour dead in Scotland and many former strongholds in the north of England pray to incursion by the Brexit Party, December 2019 could be a chastening moment in the party’s timeline.

Yet even with a mere five week campaigning period a lot can change. Boris Johnson is a master of self-destruction, media scrutiny will be as intense as ever and expect Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson (amongst others) to throw frequent, heavy punches at the political big shots.

Make no mistake, Britain’s situation is as critical as the early 1920s with a future more than a little uncertain. The time has come for a decisive step which, regardless of how it pans out, needs the full backing of Parliament.

MacDonald leading a National Coalition in the 1930s: could we see a similar government in 2020?

As for the people…all they can do is exercise their vote. After that it is up to the politicians to finally put into practice the democratic voice of the electorate, rather than engage in the sort of political point-scoring that has completely discredited the British parliamentary system.