The following is a letter from the Chief of Staff of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to his son. In reality, it was his way to preserve history. In 2029, in very similar ways to the so-called Tiananmen papers in 2001, the letter was smuggled out of China and published in the West.
It was close . . . almost as close as in January 2021, when our operation to reclaim Taiwan was aborted because of last-minute angst and disagreements over who among the Standing Committee would benefit from the new cross-strait business arrangements. We should have done it then, when the alignment of political-military factors was so much more in our favor. But this time Operation Red Province was derailed by factors largely beyond our control and that risked severe agitation among—perhaps approaching Gaichao Huandai by—the People.1
It began simply enough. Secretary General Xi, feeling secure after his reelection in 2023 and with little else to prove, quickly turned to the opportunity to cement his legacy, which largely rested on bringing Taiwan back into China. Once again sensing the potential for yet another highly contentious U.S. election in 2024, he began laying the groundwork for the operation.
But, little did we know, despite the secrecy of our decision process, the United States had somehow in mid-2021 discovered the fact of our previously aborted intent to move on Taiwan in January of that year. It turned out to be a wake-up call for Washington. We now know all about this thanks to our own spies, although our intelligence did not perform well in real time.
The U.S. Intelligence Coup
It is now clear that a reinvigorated U.S. intelligence community shifted its focus, and most importantly its resources, from counterterrorism toward an unwelcome attention on our People’s Republic. Working with their allies, they began picking up crumbs of information that allowed their analysts to discern most of the details of our 2021 plan.
In addition to more traditional forms of intelligence-gathering, one of the U.S. intelligence community’s principal tools against us involved artificial intelligence sitting atop reams of open source data, which had the benefit of cost-efficiency at a time of fiscal distress for the U.S. government. We did not realize at the time, but now know in retrospect, that we were hiding our planning in plain sight.
This intelligence coup by the Americans created a significant decision advantage for the U.S. President, the National Security Council, and the rest of their government. This intelligence galvanized and informed a top-secret policy process . . . focused on us!
The turning point in that process was a tabletop wargame held in the White House Situation Room in the summer of 2021 that asked: “What would have happened had the Chinese executed their plan?” The realization emerged quickly that, based on our speed and capability, any U.S. force hoping to make a difference in the fight would have had to be there literally on day one and that the war would have been over before it even began.
In response, an angry president demanded a wholly new strategic approach to deterring conflict with our country be delivered to his desk within one month. We have not seen what apparently ended up as a highly controversial and disruptive document—a sort of 9/11 Commission Report in advance of a disaster. But we do know that the president believed it and decided he would quietly brief senior leaders in Congress to gain the support necessary for across-the-board reforms.
We have gradually pieced together what was directed by the president in this document’s wake. For once, the United States actually took the immensely difficult steps to reform its approach before rather than after a debacle. Even as leaky as its policy establishment is, with nearly every decision making it into the news media, changes happened across the board in the U.S. security structure that we were slow to assemble into an aggregate picture. We are lucky we were not too late. The brilliance was that their individual overt changes were orchestrated into a more covert whole.
Diplomacy—America’s Most Significant Advantage
Even before the reform paper landed, the U.S. administration began restoring ties—and trust—with allies and partners around the world. This did not surprise us, but we initially misunderstood the extent to which it was aimed at China. To be sure, firm messages were still often transmitted by the United States to its allies, but now always and only behind closed doors to avoid public confrontation. Rather than taking actions with little regard for the impact on their partners, they worked harder diplomatically to account for the interests of their friends, capitalizing on topics of mutual importance and setting aside areas of difference that were of lower importance. Their overdue recognition of the efficacy of shifting away from a nationalist approach to relationships initiated a mounting wave of coordinated actions across the globe that fed some Committee members’ anxiety over being isolated.
The United States not only strengthened bilateral relations, but they took the extra step of unifying these allies and partners. In what one might call an amazing act of humility, they reassembled the Trans-Pacific Partnership right before our eyes. And this time it not only included the original TPP countries but also many others. In fact, the “TPP II” name was a misnomer, as the effort included India, the Sunni Arab countries, and even Germany, which drew in the rest of Europe. As momentum built, we were frustrated at every turn in trying to keep countries from joining the new partnership.
The United States then started to use TPP II to create carrots and sticks designed to both encourage and force us to adhere to their version of international rules and norms of behavior. Their wins started piling up, but we failed to connect the dots on how such a significant multilateral approach could impact our enhanced timeline for Taiwan.
Washington also assumed a more thoughtful approach to economic competition. It took a page from our playbook and found a way to leverage both public and private money for strategic gain. The United States’ new Development Finance Corporation, created under the Trump Administration, was merged with USAID and other American international financial organizations—all focused not on traditional development assistance but on “development investment.” Every dollar from the US government was followed by one hundred dollars from the private sector; this is how $50 billion in government money became over $5 trillion in investment.
This money was aimed at countries of strategic importance in our competition with the United States. That, and these countries’ increasing discomfort with our own heavy-handed approach to economic cooperation, is what drew many of them to the American side of the fence.
In another move, the United States became far more adept at leveraging the information environment. Their creation of modern versions of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe—which they began calling “Radio Free Asia,” even though it was mostly digital—started to fill the vacuum we previously exploited across the globe. Even though we still outspent them on foreign aid programs, they managed to expose many of our "China-first" practices around the world while also highlighting their claims of the economic, political, and social good that American interactions engender. We also began noticing that whenever we put out a piece of negative propaganda about the United States, there was immediate and hurtful pushback on the same social media outlets. Worse, they managed to cast our noble efforts to homogenize our People into Chinese culture, particularly our efforts regarding the Uighurs, as being “genocide.” These coordinated efforts contributed to a slowly gathering consensus of global public opinion against us.
But that’s not all. Fairly late in this process, sometime in late 2023, we began noticing that certain messages were evading the controls we put in place for information flow to the People. We still don’t know how they got around our firewalls, and it wasn’t significant in magnitude. But it seemed like a clear warning to us that the United States could directly reach our population on social media if they wanted to do so. We had no idea whether they intended to inject truth or lies, but the whole idea sowed enormous doubt about our ability to get our version of the truth to the people in a time of crisis and sent a chill through the Standing Committee.
A Different Military Approach
One of the most concerning shifts we observed over the past several years involved the U.S. military and, by extension, Taiwan’s military.
We knew in early 2021 that the Americans held several key technical advantages, such as stealth aircraft and attack submarines. But we felt that, through our own surprise and swiftness, few of these assets would actually arrive in time to make a difference in a struggle over the island. We would simply overwhelm any aircraft or ships that did arrive, while destroying their airfields and aircraft carriers with missiles. We would block their submarines out of the Taiwan Strait, and counter other naval forces by prepositioning our subs beyond the first island chain, where they could lay in wait. And, using a variety of methods, we would eliminate their ability to communicate, disrupting the dependence on network warfare they had complacently forged in the permissive environment of operations in the Middle East. Ah, in those days, the advantages of speed and security were ours.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s defensive capability was mired in old and ineffective systems (such as the Hawk surface to air missile system) and the purchase of irrelevant “signature” systems (such as M-1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighters), which spoke more to American jobs than to the defense of Taiwan. We laughed when they talked about purchasing vulnerable amphibious warships and destroyers.
But not long after the White House wargame, the U.S. military began breaking away from the futility of using their favored, but slow and exposed, offensive platforms against our forces. We do not know how this happened, but it must have required rapid, candid, and courageous collaboration among three key entities, each of which had to overcome two challenges. Senior military leaders had to overcome their long-standing devotion to a favored strategic concept and accept changes to the warfighting communities in which each of them ascended to high rank, especially their love for numbers. Key members of Congress had to take the political risk of permitting shifts in both modernization programs and force structure that could impact their constituents. And major industry players had to overcome their dependence on “franchise” systems that generated a steady stream of profits, as well as rapidly design and produce new systems.
As a result, as far as we can tell, the U.S. military embarked on a crash two-pronged approach, which we should have seen coming, and that led to a smaller but more capable force. They shifted from trying to offensively defeat our entire military to simply focusing on much stronger defenses against the forces we would need to either coerce or invade Taiwan. It was smart: so-called “antiaccess” in reverse. Moreover, they focused resources on capabilities that would be in place on day one rather on those that would need to transit to the area.
First, they persuaded Taiwan’s military to make difficult institutional decisions to cancel purchases of useless systems. Instead, and with U.S. support, Taiwan invested in state-of-the-art air- and missile-defense systems. These included not only radars and missiles, but also high-power microwaves, an emerging technology we had already fielded to disrupt the guidance systems on U.S. weapons. We never should have allowed open publication of our own capability in this area, as we think it may have spurred U.S. development. They also bought copious numbers of antiship missiles, even demanding better capability than those of the U.S. systems.
The United States also developed a completely new generation of sea mines that incorporated new concepts and technologies, some of which were sold to Taiwan as well. These mines combined several key capabilities: highly capable sensors, artificial intelligence, long-lasting batteries, and small torpedoes that focused more on mission kills than lethal kills. Perhaps the greatest advance was these mines’ ability to communicate through sophisticated links, which enabled software and acoustic library upgrades and the ability to direct these mines to shift modes in consonance with the state of a conflict. Their ability to activate and deactivate them at will, as well as specify target types, meant they could be emplaced without violating international law. It was a remarkable cultural, technical, and operational accomplishment.
The second prong of their approach was to integrate their own evolving military capability into the gradually escalating coordinated approaches I mentioned above that targeted our ability to keep our People content and under control. We picked up hints that they developed the ability to stop merchant ships entering or leaving our ports using means other than force. We saw other hints of cyber capabilities we did not think they possessed that could target our military, economy, and population. And there was no reason to doubt that the exceptionally sophisticated mines they developed for the defense of Taiwan could not be used against our own commercial ports. And who knows what they were developing that we did not detect?
In the end, greater risk to a physical operation to take Taiwan was only one problem. We became even more concerned about the impact on our internal reputation of such a failure, coupled with the dual threats to the Party of loss of information control and the economic effects caused by years of coordinated sanctions backed by clever uses of force. We know from history and our contemporary surveys that our People will not tolerate a reversal in our economic trajectory. The loss of our place in global supply chains, which could have led to depletion of hard currency and affected our economy in so many other ways, could easily have threatened the Party’s ability to hold power. It just seemed like too much to handle all at once.
The End Game
I can’t emphasize enough that the overall scheme of all of these U.S. initiatives was not clear to us in real time. We debated what they really meant, and we were often wrong. They only became crystal clear as Chairman Xi had us work through the preparations of making a move to bring Taiwan back into the fold. They were reinforced when, apparently, the U.S. intelligence apparatus began to detect our renewed planning, and we began to receive ominous, privately delivered warnings through diplomatic channels. As it happened, we once more relied on the wisdom of Sun Tzu: “Who wishes to fight must first count the cost.”
Many think they know how this tragedy ended, but I wanted to give you, my son, the inside story in case something untoward happens to me. Yes, there were internal political dynamics on the Politburo Standing Committee. But in the end, we were all about the Party retaining its leadership of the Chinese people, overcoming the humiliations of the last century, and guiding the world toward our vision of international relations and conduct. We had to decide whether to approach it with our characteristic patience or along the lines of Xi Jinping’s impatience and personal ambition.
Even in the face of the difficulties I’ve outlined above, Xi’s faction still wanted to move given the sharp drift of Taiwan away from us in the aftermath of our steps to bring the entitled of Hong Kong under control. Other members, who still believe in their hearts that Xi seized too much power, brought a more realistic perspective into the room. Their argument that things had changed too much over even just the past three years carried the day in the Committee room. More coordinated reactions from the outside world and a different military approach from the U.S.-led factions carried too much risk of failure and could have led to a national uprising.
I don’t need to tell you that, even though we can suppress them, such uprisings have a way in our country of predicting the fall of dynasty—as our proverb says “Heaven sees with the eyes of the people.” You must understand that this was also partly about you . . . we could not allow one person to destroy our Hongse Jiangshan.2 No, we were left no option other than to await the next opportunity, which will surely come in due course.
In the end, Chairman Xi Jinping had to go. Just between us, the corruption accusations, along with the well-placed innuendos of Xi’s “well-known incompetency and lunacy,” were a façade. I do hope you understand.
Your devoted Father.
1. Gaichao Huandai, or 改朝换代, means “change the dynasty and the ruler.”
2. “Red country” has been the code name of holding and passing the autocratic rule of China to the offspring of the CCP leaders.