A bridge over troubled UK-China diplomatic waters

The Chinese government has made strides in containing the coronavirus, which infected tens of thousands and killed more than 4,000 people in the country while spreading worldwide. At the same time, Beijing is locked in an increasingly heated diplomatic confrontation with Washington. Nikkei’s bureau chief in China, Tetsushi Takahashi, is filing dispatches on what he sees.

Monday, June 8

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 is widely known as the trigger for the Second Sino-Japanese War. But few, at least in Japan, are aware of what happened decades earlier at another bridge in Beijing — Baliqiao, or “Eight Mile Bridge.”

In September 1860, Qing dynasty forces and Anglo-French troops fought a large battle in the area around the bridge, about 20 km east of the Forbidden City. It was the last line of defense to protect Beijing during the Second Opium War, which had broken out four years earlier.

The Qing forces, which relied on traditional cavalry, were unable to repel the attacks by the British and French, which had state-of-the-art weaponry. They were routed within several hours, while the foreign troops were practically unscathed and advanced into Beijing. Emboldened, the Western armies destroyed Yuanmingyuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace. All this can be found in history textbooks.

Baliqiao, formally called Yongtongqiao and also spelled Palikao, was built in 1446 during the Ming dynasty. Even today, the historic bridge retains its original beauty. Until several years ago, cars were allowed to pass over it, but traffic has been diverted to a new bridge nearby.

When I visited the old bridge at the end of May, repairs were underway and its eastern half was obscured. The only indication of the fierce battle once fought there is a sign that says Baliqiao “is a precious witness of a modern China that resisted aggression by foreign peoples.”

I was not surprised that there was no mention of the British and French specifically — unlike at Marco Polo Bridge, where the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression stands nearby as a center for patriotic education.

But after President Xi Jinping’s government rushed to pass the national security law for Hong Kong, in effect banning dissident activity in the former British colony, the U.K. has stepped up criticism of Beijing.

Last Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in the Times newspaper that if the Chinese government does not withdraw the controversial legislation, he will open the way for up to 2.85 million Hong Kongers to obtain British citizenship.

Predictably, China reacted sharply, accusing the U.K. of “gross interference” in its internal affairs.

As seen in Sino-Japanese relations, Beijing tends to use history to serve its diplomatic purposes. So it can be expected to turn up the heat on the U.K. — perhaps by claiming London has no right to weigh in on Hong Kong given that it grabbed the territory in the First Opium War of 1840-42.

After the Qing dynasty lost the Second Opium War, it also ceded the Kowloon Peninsula — which faces Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbour — to the U.K. It was the battle at Baliqiao that led to this defeat. And as I gazed at the bridge under repair, I had a feeling that like Marco Polo Bridge, it too might also become a center for patriotic education.

Friday, June 5: Zhao Ziyang’s enduring democratic flame

Every June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on student protesters, security tightens around the landmark in central Beijing. But there is another place where the authorities are on guard each year.

Plainclothes police officers are also deployed to the area around the old home of Zhao Ziyang, the late former Communist Party general secretary who fell from power after he showed understanding of the pro-democracy movement and objected to suppressing it with force.

Zhao lived on a hutong not too far from Tiananmen. These are narrow streets and alleys formed by lines of traditional Chinese siheyuan houses.

On Thursday, the anniversary, I tried to pass by Zhao’s home in the afternoon. Numerous police vehicles were parked nearby, and partly due to coronavirus precautions, his entire street was sealed off.

Zhao died in January 2005. More than 15 years later, his home is monitored because he is still revered by many as a leader who supported democratization.

In the early hours of May 19, 1989 — about two weeks before the Tiananmen crackdown — Zhao addressed students who had gathered in the square. Using a loudspeaker and with tears in his eyes, he told the crowd: “Students, we came too late. We are sorry.”

It was his last public appearance. He spent about 16 years under house arrest until his death at age 85.

One man in his late 40s, who attended Zhao’s funeral, received a card from the deceased leader’s family with a photo showing him smiling. The man still cherishes the card, which also features a faint picture of Zhao’s house on the back.

The Communist Party must have feared Zhao’s grave becoming a sacred place for pro-democracy forces. It was not until October 2019 that the party allowed the burial of his ashes.

Zhao now rests with his wife, Liang Boqi, in an ordinary cemetery about 60 km from central Beijing — not in the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery reserved for party cadres.

June 4 was a bright, fine day in the capital this year. There appeared to be more police and armored vehicles around Tiananmen than on a usual anniversary. I don’t think it was my imagination.

Discontent over the impact of the coronavirus crisis is smoldering, after all. Meanwhile, China continues to face international criticism over its heavy-handed decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, banning dissident activity in the former British colony.

The government led by President Xi Jinping contained the outbreak faster than other countries, and seems increasingly confident in its one-party rule. Yet, the intense security in and around Tiananmen Square also suggests Chinese leaders have nagging fears, and shows that Zhao’s “fire of democracy” has not been extinguished.

Wednesday, June 3: Trump gives China a PR win on Tiananmen eve

Chinese people refer to the Tiananmen Square incident as “64,” since the People’s Liberation Army crushed students’ pro-democracy movement on June 4, 1989. This year, ahead of the 31st anniversary on Thursday, the atmosphere in Beijing feels more tense than usual.

Tiananmen Square was closed for some reason on Tuesday afternoon. Though the coronavirus outbreak has subsided and visitors have been returning since early May, the vast square was eerily silent.

I have never seen Tiananmen this deserted around June 4. Normally it is packed with tourists — and to me, the crowds seemed to symbolize authorities’ confidence that they had relegated the incident to the past. After all, Chinese students do not learn about “64” in schools and the term cannot be searched online. Most Chinese in their 30s or younger know little about it.

Seen in this light, the empty square is certainly out of the ordinary.

Due to the coronavirus, China’s growth rate fell into negative territory in the January-March quarter, raising the risk of public discontent. And late last month, the National People’s Congress approved the new national security law aimed at banning dissident activity in Hong Kong, fueling outrage among pro-democracy activists there.

The authorities are taking no chances that the Tiananmen anniversary could spark something in the capital.

Armored vehicles are being deployed to the square. They belong to the People’s Armed Police, a unit under the People’s Liberation Army that was poorly equipped when the 1989 incident occurred.

Immediately after the Tiananmen crackdown, I remember a Chinese researcher saying that the tragedy would never have happened if the armed police had water cannon trucks or tear gas grenades like Japanese riot police. He meant that Beijing felt it had no choice but to deploy the military, as the armed police were deemed unable to contain the students and other protesters, resulting in many casualties.

In fact, it was the Tiananmen Square incident that prompted Beijing to beef up the armed police. When many young Hong Kongers took to the streets last summer, Chinese media repeatedly showed footage of the armed police training in neighboring Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. They practiced dispersing demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has hinted that he could deploy troops to quell the protests sweeping America — triggered by the death of a black man who had begged for air as a white policeman knelt on his neck in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, now known as a “wolf warrior” diplomat, blasted Trump. “Why does the U.S. side criticize Hong Kong police’s civilized and restrained law enforcement while it threatens to fire guns at domestic protesters and even deploy the U.S. National Guard to suppress them?” Zhao said.

He seemed to be implying that China’s armed police would do a better job of controlling the demonstrators.

Trump has labeled the violence accompanying some protests over police brutality as “acts of domestic terror.” But his handling of the situation has given Beijing cover for imposing iron-fist rule over Hong Kong.

Monday, June 1: Roots of the ‘wolf warrior’ mentality

China’s “wolf warrior” diplomat is on an offensive.

Last Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump hinted that he would take strong measures against China over the new national security law for Hong Kong. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian fired back at a news conference the next day.

“China is firmly opposed to foreign interference in China’s domestic affairs,” he said. He even added heroic background music to a video clip of the news conference he posted on Twitter, as if to boost national prestige.

No Chinese career diplomat has drawn this much attention before.

The term “wolf warrior” — increasingly used to describe Chinese foreign policy — comes from “Wolf Warrior 2,” a hit 2017 action movie that depicts a former Chinese commando’s daring missions to save compatriots in a war-torn African country. The movie was nicknamed “Chinese Rambo,” due to its similarities to the 1982 Hollywood movie “First Blood.”

Zhao — who caused controversy in March by tweeting that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to the Chinese city of Wuhan — is also gaining popularity within China. Many Chinese must appreciate his criticism of the U.S., and Beijing seems to be giving him a starring role in its fight with Washington.

But is this a job for a diplomat?

Even when politicians criticize other countries, it is up to diplomats to find common ground behind the scenes. Without this division of roles, there would be no diplomatic ties.

The concept of “diplomacy” is relatively new to China, though. Historically, Chinese dynasties were based on Sinocentrism — the idea that China was the center of the world — and thus did not recognize other countries as sovereign nations. There was no concept of nations maintaining relationships on an equal footing.

The Qing dynasty set up the Zongli Yamen, a government body in charge of foreign policy, in 1861, immediately after it was defeated by Britain and France in the Second Opium War. As China was forced to bow to European demands, the beginning of its “diplomacy” is linked to its humiliation.

Last weekend, I tried to visit the former site of the Zongli Yamen, about 2 km east of the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, the road leading to it remained closed due to coronavirus precautions. Since I’m not a resident of the area, I was not allowed to pass through.

Reluctantly, I went for a stroll. Then I realized there is another significant place related to Chinese diplomacy just to the south — the site of the People’s Republic of China’s original foreign ministry, opened in 1949.

It turned out that the building, once used as a guesthouse during the Qing dynasty, was gone. What was left was a majestic gate. Former Premier Zhou Enlai, who had served as the country’s first foreign minister, must have thought of ways to introduce China to the world there.

Few in Zhou’s era could have imagined China growing into the superpower it is today — reclaiming its position at the center of the world stage. The risk is that, in some ways, China seeks a return to the days when there was no diplomacy.

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