The Chinese government is battling to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has infected tens of thousands and killed more than 4,000 people, while spreading worldwide. Nikkei’s bureau chief in China, Tetsushi Takahashi, is on the ground in the capital and is filing dispatches on what he sees.
Thursday, April 30
Beijing finally decided on Wednesday that the annual National People’s Congress will be held on May 22, about two and a half months later than planned. Convening the legislature shows China is overcoming the coronavirus crisis ahead of the rest of the world.
I drove past the Great Hall of the People, west of Tiananmen Square, on Wednesday afternoon. Workers were checking lighting equipment on two aerial platforms, probably for the upcoming event.
Another meeting, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, is typically held in conjunction with the congress. This is now scheduled to start on May 21.
Both gatherings will be held at the Great Hall, but the Political Consultative Conference’s secretariat is located about 3 km west of Tiananmen. The magnificent building, called the Political Consultative Conference’s Hall, hosted many important meetings before the Great Hall was completed in 1959.
The Political Consultative Conference itself predates the National People’s Congress. In September 1949, just before the People’s Republic of China was established, leaders of the Communist Party and other parties gathered in Zhongnanhai for its first meeting and selected Mao Zedong as the head of the new China. The Political Consultative Conference was the highest governing body until the National People’s Congress was launched in 1954.
In the beginning, Mao sought to build a “new democracy” with the participation of capitalists. The Political Consultative Conference — a forum for discussions among multiple parties — was a mechanism for this.
But faced with a choice between capitalism and socialism amid the Cold War, Mao picked socialism in 1953. With the Communist Party wielding all kinds of power, the Political Consultative Conference has become a political advisory body. Its fate reveals a great deal about modern Chinese politics.
Tuesday, April 28: The curious case of the ‘Thousand Talents’ program
Sometimes, weird things happen in China. I encountered one recently: Searching online for the “Thousand Talents” program no longer works.
The program is a Chinese government initiative to attract global professionals with valuable expertise. But when I typed the Chinese name into Baidu — the country’s answer to Google — I received an error message. “Sorry, no page related to the search term was found.”
Searching for the “overseas talent recruitment policy,” the project’s official name, did turn up a list of hits. But when I clicked on a link recommending I look for the abbreviated name, I landed on a similar error message. I was baffled.
The Thousand Talents program was launched in 2008 to help China develop cutting-edge science and technology. It features generous subsidies and attractive jobs. Some 8,000 people are believed to have qualified so far.
The U.S. has criticized the policy, alleging that Beijing rewards individuals for stealing information from other countries. In late January, Harvard University professor Charles Lieber was charged for allegedly making a false statement about his participation while receiving U.S. subsidies.
Now, as the U.S. and China wage a war of words over the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing has apparently made it impossible to search for Thousand Talents. What does this mean?
It could be a gesture of compromise for U.S. President Donald Trump. There is a precedent for this. At the National People’s Congress in March 2019, Premier Li Keqiang did not refer to the government’s “Made in China 2025” high-tech manufacturing initiative. This was rumored to have been a nod to U.S. criticism.
Yet one can still search for Made in China 2025. Why has the term “Thousand Talents” been wiped from the Chinese internet? For now, one can merely shrug it off as another “weird thing” among many.
Monday, April 27: High-stakes ‘panda diplomacy’
The Beijing Zoo, known for its collection of rare animals native to China, partially reopened in late March. Only the outdoor exhibits are accessible.
When I visited this past weekend, I found a crowd at the panda area. Four of the animals were dozing in their compound, enjoying the warm weather. A girl who looked to be about 5 or 6 years old asked her parents, “Why are the pandas always sleeping?” She seemed a bit unhappy, waiting for the creatures to make a move.
Still, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Beijing Zoo may well be the only place in a national capital where visitors can spend time gazing at pandas.
Lately, China’s coronavirus aid or “mask diplomacy” has been a hot topic of debate around the world. But the country is also known for its “panda diplomacy.”
Beijing offers pandas to countries with which it hopes to deepen ties. This has proved to be a powerful tool for improving China’s image.
In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China and, after years of confrontation, the two governments quickly moved to improve relations. Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka also visited Beijing, leading to the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties.
At the time, China presented the U.S. and Japan with two pandas each as “a symbol of friendship.”
In 1982, China switched from panda donations to loans, but even now the animals play an important role in Beijing’s diplomatic strategy.
Two pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., are now drawing attention, in particular. Mei Xiang, a female, and Tian Tian, a male, arrived from China on loan in 2000. The deal is due to expire this December, raising the question: Will it be extended? Or will China lend new pandas to the zoo?
It was the National Zoo that accepted those first two pandas after Nixon’s trip. But soon, the U.S. capital might be left pandaless.
The coronavirus is said to have brought bilateral ties to their worst point in history. If China withdraws its pandas — one of the few remaining bright spots in the relationship — it could mark a grave turning point.
The future of panda diplomacy is a matter of concern for all of us, not just children.
Friday, April 24: Xi Jinping’s picks for World Book Day
I wonder how many people know that April 23 is World Book and Copyright Day. This year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese media ran an unusual campaign promoting the importance of reading, coinciding with the day designated by UNESCO.
The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, featured “Books recommended by President Xi Jinping” on the WeChat messaging app. Surprisingly, William Shakespeare made the list, in addition to “The Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung” and Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.”
Xi quoted the famous line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: “When I was young, I kept thinking ‘To be or not to be’ on a depleted yellow land of northern Shaanxi Province.”
In 1969, at age 15, Xi was sent to Shaanxi Province for re-education of intellectual youths. He spent nearly six years living in a cave, in a poor farming village. With little access to education, he must have devoured the few books he was able to obtain. Xi often says his main hobby is reading.
Shaanxi was also the birthplace of his father, former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun. Xi Jinping, the son, was back in the province this week, inspecting the coronavirus situation from Monday to Thursday.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted Xi as saying that COVID-19 had revealed the shortcomings of some party organizations and leaders. The unusual reading campaign may have something to do with concerns about a loss of faith in the party.
On Thursday afternoon I visited Wangfujing Bookstore, named after the busy Beijing shopping district. Xi’s own books were placed conspicuously at the entrance. Unfortunately, I could not find the ones he recommended in the People’s Daily.
Thursday, April 23: The surveillance state in your pocket
I saw a middle-aged woman quarreling with a shop clerk at the entrance of a small dumpling restaurant I frequent. “Why can’t I come in?” the woman asked, only to be told to show her Health Kit on her smartphone.
“I told you the system doesn’t work,” she insisted, but the shop clerk did not allow her to enter. The woman fiddled with her smartphone for a while, but gave up and left.
Lately, I am asked to show my Health Kit wherever I go. Residents register via the WeChat messaging app or Alipay e-wallet, supplying a photo and identification number. The system uses big data to track whether you have been in close contact with a coronavirus patient or have been out of Beijing recently.
It seems the woman could not receive her assessment even though she entered the necessary information. In my case, a “no abnormal conditions” message appeared as soon as I entered my passport number and photo.
Those who have been in proximity to infected people will see a “concentrated monitoring” message, while those who recently arrived from outside Beijing will see “home monitoring.”
The Beijing authorities starting using the system on March 1. Major office buildings check it at their entrances. On Monday, officials ordered all restaurants in the capital to admit only customers who show an all-clear message.
Japan, the U.S. and Europe are developing similar systems, but this could take time and stir controversy over privacy. Health Kit may be more feasible in a country like China, where all personal information is controlled by the state.
Of course, such systems can be prone to glitches. The other day, my Health Kit suddenly displayed “home monitoring” due to malfunctions in some areas. I worry this could happen more often. I heard that some people were ordered to stay home for 14 days after their phones picked up reception from neighboring Hebei Province around the periphery of Beijing.
The spread of China’s surveillance in the pandemic raises other worries for the future.
Wednesday, April 22: Positive test after quarantine shatters sense of safety
It was too early to let our guards down after all. Beijing’s Chaoyang district, where I live, has been designated a “high-risk” area for the coronavirus. I live in the only high-risk area in China.
Beijing’s infection numbers had been holding steady, and Chaoyang — which includes the Guomao business district — was beginning to return to normal. Now it has been deemed a danger zone.
The authorities say a male student returned from the U.S. in late March and arrived home in Chaoyang in early April, after a two-week quarantine. Two days later, he came down with a fever and tested positive for COVID-19. His mother, brother and grandfather, who share the household, also tested positive.
With the number of close contacts reaching 62, the authorities are concerned about a new cluster of cases.
The student’s positive test came as a major shock because he had tested negative multiples times after returning to China. This could spark a debate over whether two-week quarantines are long enough.
I assumed the ward where the student lives would be under tight security. But when I passed by the apartment complex on Tuesday afternoon, it looked like any other building. I checked the price of a condo online and found a 90-sq.-meter unit costs over 7 million yuan ($988,000). Porsches, BMWs and other foreign luxury cars came in and out of the gate.
This is a common sight in Beijing. But in China as a whole — where the gap between rich and poor is widening — most people cannot afford luxury condos and cars.
China’s sole remaining high-risk area, at this point, is a place for the privileged.
Tuesday, April 21: Who framed the Communist Youth League?
“95% of Americans do not deserve to live!” I could not believe my eyes when I saw this posted on Chinese social media. The sender’s identity was shocking as well: It supposedly came from the central committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League, the ruling party’s youth organization.
The Youth League is a prestigious political institution. Former President Hu Jintao, Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Hu Chunhua were all members. Granted, the U.S. and China have been sparring over the origin of the new coronavirus. But it would be no joke if the league insulted the vast majority of Americans.
Except, the message turned out to be fake.
Late on Sunday night, the Youth League’s real central committee issued a statement denying that it sent the message, and saying the sender must be held accountable under the law.
So who sent it?
Speculation is rife that it originated from either Hong Kong or Taiwan. It is certainly convenient for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen that the U.S. government is increasingly critical of China. In a way, these conspiracy theories about the message seem plausible. Yet the truth may not be so simple.
The Youth League faced harsh criticism after President Xi Jinping took power in fall 2012. In February 2016, the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection compiled a report condemning the league for being too aristocratic and out of touch with the general public. The organization became a focus for reform and its former members appeared to lose influence.
But now some say they are making a comeback in the fight against the coronavirus — and their enemies may be displeased. Perhaps the message was sent by someone who wants to see former Youth League members humbled.
The crisis may be bringing about subtle changes in the balance of power within the Communist Party.
Monday, April 20: ‘Humiliation’ of the past, black swans of the future
For many, the Beijing suburb of Yuanmingyuan brings to mind China’s “history of humiliation.”
It was the site of an imperial palace during the Qing dynasty, known as the Old Summer Palace. Qianlong, the sixth emperor of the dynasty who presided over its golden age, built a Western-style palace along with a fountain in the corner of a vast garden.
Today, all that is left of the palace are ruins. Allied forces from the U.K. and France pushed into Beijing and destroyed it during the Second Opium War of 1856-1860. The site was reborn as an example for patriotic education, and has remained open to the public despite the coronavirus outbreak.
When I visited on Saturday morning, I found a girl of elementary school age standing in front of the ruins with a man who appeared to be her grandfather. She asked him: “Why did it turn out like this?” He replied, “It was destroyed by foreigners.”
The girl looked confused. It may be difficult for young generations, who know only a strong China, to imagine their homeland in the days when it was oppressed by foreign powers.
I found a bust of a Westerner beside the remnants. It depicted Victor Hugo, the French literary legend best known for “Les Miserables.” Hugo criticized the British and French as “robbers” for razing the Old Summer Palace, a valuable cultural asset. China regards Hugo as one of the few who understood Chinese civilization and spoke out against the vandalism.
During my visit, something else came as a surprise: a black swan. It is said to have been raised on a lake inside the grounds since 2008, when the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing.
Lehman Brothers collapsed that September, plunging the world into a financial crisis. Twelve years on, the Chinese astrological calendar entered a new cycle, with the coronavirus rampaging across the globe.
The term “black swan” is used in the finance industry to describe rare and unpredictable events that, if they happen, have an enormous impact on markets and economies.
What other surprises lie ahead for China and the world? I left the Old Summer Palace with a vague sense of unease.
Friday, April 17: Deserted US Embassy creates intelligence blind spot
The U.S. and China are squaring off over the source of the coronavirus pandemic. It is anyone’s guess which side is telling the truth.
Fox News on Wednesday reported that there is “increasing confidence” that the COVID-19 outbreak originated in a Wuhan laboratory. U.S. President Donald Trump said his administration is investigating.
China fired back immediately. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Thursday stressed that the World Health Organization had repeatedly said there is no evidence the virus was created in a lab.
Zhao was the one who started the feud. “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Zhao tweeted on March 12, providing no evidence. The same man who peddled a conspiracy theory is now insisting it is a matter of science.
Yet, it is doubtful the Trump administration can conduct a fair investigation, either.
According to diplomatic sources, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is almost empty. Most of the staff returned to the U.S. after the virus began spreading rapidly in China in late January.
A diplomatic source once said that nearly half of the roughly 1,000 U.S. diplomats in China are engaged in intelligence work. Now that most of them are gone, American intelligence capabilities must be much weaker. It is becoming almost impossible to gauge China’s true intentions through diplomatic channels.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has become a political football.
State-run China Central Television reported that, in a phone call with President Xi Jinping on Thursday, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said he cannot accept that some people are trying to blame China as the source of the virus. Beijing is stepping up a diplomatic offensive to isolate the U.S.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s diplomatic district is dead silent. The deserted building, surrounded by tight Chinese security, can be seen as a symbol of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy.
Thursday, April 16: Heroes from the ‘Anti-imperialist Hospital’
A team of 186 doctors and nurses from Peking Union Medical College Hospital left Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, on Wednesday to return to Beijing.
After infections exploded in the Hubei Province city in January, about 350 medical teams comprising around 40,000 professionals were dispatched from across the country to help treat virus patients. After Wuhan’s crisis finally abated in mid-March, they began to leave in phases to return to their normal duties.
The squad from PUMCH was the last to leave for home, and the Chinese media covered their departure extensively.
Wuhan itself is gradually returning to normal daily life after a lockdown that lasted from Jan. 23 to April 8. Professor Li Taisheng, an infectious disease expert who led the PUMCH team, had encouraging words for the city’s residents in an interview with the People’s Daily.
“It is safe to say that Wuhan is now relatively the safest city in the country,” Li told the Communist Party mouthpiece.
PUMCH, which also conducts research and provides education, is one of the most respected hospitals in China. It was established by the Rockefeller Foundation of the U.S. in 1921 and was temporarily seized by the Japanese military during the war. Its building from that time, near the busy Beijing shopping district of Wangfujing, is still used as a hospital, research and training facility.
Today, the pandemic is severely straining relations between the U.S. and China. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced he would temporarily halt American funding for the World Health Organization, accusing it of being “biased toward China.”
This confrontation between Beijing and Washington is casting a pall over international cooperation against the virus. But PUMCH has felt similar tensions before.
During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution in China, it was forced to change its name to the “Anti-imperialist Hospital” due to controversy over its establishment with U.S. aid.
PUMCH can be considered the starting point of cooperation between the U.S. and China in the medical field. I just pray it will not have to change its name again.
Wednesday, April 15: The woman who bridged diplomatic divides
I heard worrying news that could affect the future of Sino-Japanese relations. The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries formally decided last Thursday that President Li Xiaolin will step down and be replaced by Lin Songtian, a former ambassador to South Africa.
Li, 66, is the daughter of Li Xiannian, who served as China’s president in the 1980s. She belongs to the “second red generation,” the offspring of a select group of revolutionary leaders who heavily contributed to the development of the Communist Party in its early days.
Li is said to be a childhood friend of President Xi Jinping, the son of former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun. She might have joined Xi on his state visit to Japan, which had been scheduled for this month but was shelved due to the coronavirus. Perhaps she would have retired after the trip.
How might Li’s retirement affect Beijing’s diplomacy?
She has broad connections in Japanese business and politics, and served as a mediator between Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a time when ties improved.
Li has also played a key role in stabilizing U.S-China relations. Yet, now they are more strained than ever: On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that his administration will halt funding for the World Health Organization, which he has criticized as “China-centric.”
Every so often, I visit the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. The exhibitions change from time to time, depending on the trajectory of Sino-Japanese relations.
It is situated on the outskirts of Beijing, near Lugou Bridge — praised by the Italian explorer Marco Polo as the most beautiful bridge in the world. I was planning to go again this year before Xi’s visit to Japan, but the museum has been closed since late January.
I cannot even get close to it. The entire district — the bridge included — has been locked down, leaving me with no hints on the state of Beijing-Tokyo ties.
Tuesday, April 14: The Boxer Rebellion connection
The authorities have decided that students in Beijing will take the gaokao, China’s national college entrance exams, on July 7-10.
The exams are traditionally held in June, but the Ministry of Education postponed them in late March without fixing new dates for Beijing and Hubei Province. At last, 12th graders in the capital can focus on their final preparations.
Some will be aiming to get into the country’s most prestigious schools: Peking University and Tsinghua University. The two universities are bitter rivals, but Tsinghua — the alma mater of President Xi Jinping and his predecessor, Hu Jintao — has increased its clout in recent years.
Historically, Tsinghua University and the U.S. are closely connected.
In 1900, at the end of the Qing dynasty, Beijing was in chaos due to the Boxer Rebellion — an anti-imperialist and anti-Christian uprising in which foreigners were targeted. Eight countries — including Japan, the U.S. and some European states — sent troops to Beijing in the name of protecting their own trapped citizens. The eight, which put down the rebellion with overwhelming force, demanded that the Qing dynasty pay massive compensation for 39 years.
Chinese remember it as a humiliating chapter in their history.
Among the eight nations, the U.S. was relatively sympathetic to China. Acknowledging criticism that the punishment was too harsh, the American government in 1911 spent part of the compensation to build Tsinghua College, the predecessor of Tsinghua University. It was to serve as a preparatory school for students who would be sent to the U.S.
This year, which marks the 120th anniversary of the rebellion, U.S.-China relations are more strained than ever amid the coronavirus pandemic. Numerous U.S. citizens and companies are demanding significant compensation from the Chinese government over its handling of the crisis. Some in China liken these moves to the indemnity imposed on the Qing dynasty.
At a top-level Communist Party meeting on April 8, President Xi stressed that China will have to be ready — both ideologically and in practical terms — to adapt to a changing environment over the relatively long term. He might have been hinting at a long battle with the U.S.
Monday, April 13: The Great Wall of coronavirus data
There were more people than I had expected, but far fewer than in normal times.
I visited a section of the Great Wall of China in Badaling, on the outskirts of Beijing, on Saturday. The atmosphere was somewhat lively, but I’m not sure whether to describe the crowd as large or small.
Badaling had been closed for two months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but it reopened on March 24. Tickets must be purchased online in advance, and entries will be stopped if the number of visitors exceeds about 30% of normal levels. Last summer, up to 65,000 visitors passed through per day; now the limit is around 20,000.
Usually, the place is so packed you cannot move. So this might be an ideal time for a leisurely visit.
I saw a middle-aged woman making a video call on her smartphone. “You should visit here now!” she said. “You can get in without waiting in line.”
Still, hordes of people do form here and there — especially at Beibalou, the highest point in Badaling, and Haohanshi, a popular photography spot. A worrying thought crossed my mind: What if these crowds included a coronavirus carrier? I wondered if the Chinese authorities shared this concern.
Then I remembered that, upon entering, I had been asked to show my smartphone with the Health Kit service screen.
One registers for this through the WeChat mobile messaging app, by providing a face photo and personal identification number. Using big data, the service detects whether registered individuals have had contact with anyone known to be infected, and tracks infected people leaving Beijing. When I entered my passport number and picture, I promptly received an all-clear message.
I suppose the government is confident it has a firm grasp of the situation, thanks to smartphone location data and the surveillance cameras set up all over the place. Perhaps that factored into the decision to reopen Badaling.
The wall of information China has constructed is as large and strong as the Great Wall.
Friday, April 10: Tokyo becomes a cautionary tale
Tokyo’s surging coronavirus cases are making headlines in China. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Thursday announced 181 new confirmed infections, bringing the total in the Japanese capital to 1,519. The official total for Beijing, in contrast, is under 600.
Tokyo seemed to be handling the crisis better than other big cities like New York and London, which have seen explosive outbreaks. My Chinese acquaintances used to compliment me, praising Japanese hygiene. But now they may be thinking the Japanese let their guard down.
Some may see a lesson for China, on the risk of becoming too relaxed.
Data from the government-owned China Tourism Academy shows about 43 million Chinese went traveling during this year’s Qingming Festival, or “tomb-sweeping” period for visiting graves, which ended on Monday. Footage of crowds at Mount Huangshan — one of the country’s best-known scenic spots, in the eastern province of Anhui — went viral on social media.
On a Chinese news site, I found a video titled “Beijing Station is in big trouble!”
When I visited the station on Thursday afternoon, there were more people milling about out front compared with my last visit in mid-February. It was a little alarming to see people with large luggage sitting on the ground, and even spitting.
At a top-level Communist Party meeting on Wednesday, President Xi Jinping stressed that China is facing a complex, severe international pandemic and worldwide economic woes. The country, he said, will have to stick to “bottom-line thinking.” This unfamiliar slogan probably means people should prepare for the worst.
The Xi government may be looking to tighten its grip yet again to contain a second wave of infections.
Thursday, April 9: Hard-line spokesman Zhao returns with a softer script
Zhao Lijian, the deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, has resurfaced nearly a month after he disappeared from the public eye.
In mid-March, Zhao raised eyebrows by tweeting that the U.S. military may have brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan, where the outbreak started. American officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, condemned this conspiracy theory, further chilling relations between the two countries.
Until this week, Zhao had not been seen in public since the uproar, prompting speculation that he might have been replaced. But on Tuesday, he hosted his first regular news conference at the Foreign Ministry in about a month. I attended the next day’s briefing to see how he looked and hear what he had to say.
In the April 8 news conference, Zhao was asked about U.S. President’s Donald Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organization for being “very biased toward China.” Trump also threatened to review American funding for the organization.
Zhao gave an innocuous reply.
He said the WHO, under the leadership of Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had been “playing an important role in coordinating international efforts and advancing international cooperation in response to the pandemic.”
Zhao seemed to be at pains to avoid denouncing Trump while defending the WHO and its chief.
While fielding questions, Zhao frequently stopped to leaf through papers. Even when he started to deliver answers, his eyes would linger on the documents.
After his tweet about the U.S. military caused such a fuss, he appeared to be sticking to the script. This was a very different Zhao than the seemingly outspoken man seen before.
Something else has changed as well. After the spat over the origin of the virus, numerous comments expressing displeasure with Zhao appeared on Chinese social media. But now, criticism of the spokesman is rare, and anyone who knocks him is blasted as a “puppet of the U.S.”
It seems clear that everything Zhao says reflects the intentions of the Chinese leadership, led by President Xi Jinping. He is not expressing his own views, even on Twitter.
China’s tight control of free speech, which contributed to the delayed initial response to the outbreak, is also working well here.
Wednesday, April 8: Wuhan’s ordeal ends but other battles have just begun
On Wednesday morning, planes took off one after another from the airports in Wuhan, Hubei Province. The city’s lockdown, in place since Jan. 23 due to the deadly coronavirus, was finally lifted.
While Tokyo, Osaka and other Japanese cities entered a state of emergency on Wednesday, the Chinese city at the center of the initial outbreak is beginning to return to normal.
Even without a lockdown, no flights from Wuhan are allowed to go to Beijing directly. Airlines must first stop in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, or other cities. No direct international flights are allowed into Beijing, either.
Reported new infections have remained roughly flat in mainland China, with no new deaths recorded on Monday. Still, the authorities’ message is clear: We are winning the fight against the virus, but do not come to Beijing.
After all, the capital — the headquarters of the Communist Party — is special.
So Beijing’s two large airports remain deserted. On Tuesday afternoon, I went to Beijing Daxing International Airport, which opened only last September, about 45 km south of the city center. It was strange to see the empty terminal, which resembles a huge spaceship in a sci-fi movie.
The government spent 80 billion yuan ($11.3 billion) to build Daxing International Airport to ease the capacity crunch at Beijing Capital International Airport. The new hub’s passenger volume was forecast to hit 72 million by 2025.
The plan was to increase the number of runways from four to seven in pursuit of 100 million annual passengers. Now, however, the government will have no choice but to rethink that.
Wuhan’s liberation has brought relief and excitement, but President Xi Jinping’s government faces numerous “postwar” challenges.
Tuesday, April 7: The Communist Party and an Olympic twist of fate
This year’s Qingming Festival, or “tomb-sweeping” period for visiting graves, ended on Monday. Over the three-day weekend, some parks in the capital were crowded, as the public loosens up after months in coronavirus crisis mode.
It was a stark contrast with Tokyo, which is entering a state of emergency.
On Monday morning, I stopped by Xiangshan Park in the western suburbs. After a temperature check, I entered and found numerous families and young people out for a stroll.
Xiangshan, the site of a Qing dynasty imperial summer palace, is one of the Communist Party’s revolutionary bases. In March 1949, the party set up its first headquarters there after beating the Kuomintang, or Nationalist party.
Communist leader Mao Zedong spent nearly six months there, formulating plans for the People’s Republic of China, which was established on Oct. 1.
With the backing of President Xi Jinping, Mao’s residence and the new Xiangshan Revolution Memorial Hall were opened to the public in September 2019, as part of China’s 70th anniversary celebrations. There was a long line of visitors when I visited the following month.
Recently, the hall has been closed as a precaution against the virus. But it is expected to feature prominently when the party commemorates the 100th anniversary of its founding in July 2021. As soon as it has the epidemic under control, the government will start planning nationwide centennial events.
The party considers July 1 its foundation date. But official records show the first party congress began in Shanghai on July 23, 1921. The party picked July 1 in the 1930s simply because Mao recalled that the first congress had been held in that month.
In a strange coincidence, another big event is scheduled for July 23: the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed due to the pandemic.
Monday, April 6: Three minutes of mourning
China’s death toll from the coronavirus outbreak stands at around 3,300. As the nation marked the Qingming Festival, or “tomb-sweeping day,” on April 4 — when people normally visit their ancestors’ graves — the government called on the public to observe three minutes of mourning for the victims at 10:00 a.m.
That day, a crowd converged on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where a Chinese flag flew at half-mast. At precisely 10:00 a.m., sirens rang out, people bowed their heads en masse and vehicles honked their horns.
Unlike in Japan, making loud sounds is a Chinese way of paying respects to the dead.
At exactly the same time, the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s top decision-making body led by President Xi Jinping, observed a moment of silence just west of the square. They stood in front of the Huairen Hall, roughly at the center of the vast Zhongnanhai area.
The hall was built in the 1880s, in the last years of the Qing dynasty. Empress Dowager Cixi, popularly known as the West Empress Dowager, lived there. Today, the hall is where the 25-member Politburo — including the Standing Committee — holds meetings.
In other words, it is the center of the Communist Party’s power.
The state-run China Central Television showed footage of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members and Vice President Wang Qishan standing solemnly in the front row, with Xi at the center.
Wang retired from the Standing Committee at the party’s last national congress in autumn 2017. But he returned to the core of the Xi regime as vice president in spring 2018. He is, effectively, an eighth committee member.
The eight leaders had all gathered the previous day, as well, for a tree-planting event in southern Beijing. They used shovels to dig holes and planted trees in a scene meant to show they are united against the virus.
That the eight of them appeared together two days in a row suggests growing confidence that the epidemic can be contained. After the day of remembrance, a festive, victorious mood is spreading.
Friday, April 3: The unbearable weight of being a student
June is examination season in China. Gaokao, the country’s national college entrance exams, are traditionally held during the month.
But this year, the gaokao schedule has changed due to the new coronavirus. The Ministry of Education announced in late March that the 2020 exams would be conducted on July 7 and 8, a month later than normal. The ministry also hinted that tests in Beijing and Hubei Province could be postponed further, depending on the status of the outbreak.
The gaokao exams, seen as a symbol of highly competitive Chinese society, are often likened to the civil service examination system that lasted from the Sui dynasty (581-618) to 1905, the end of the Qing dynasty. Then, as now, success or failure could have a major impact on the course of one’s life. The ministry says 10.71 million students are scheduled to take the exams this year.
After the announcement of the delay, social networks were flooded with posts by distressed students. It must be unbearable to have to study for another month.
On Thursday evening, I passed the prestigious Beijing No. 4 High School. In normal circumstances, students would have been rushing out at that time of day, but the gate was locked. All schools in the capital have been closed since the Lunar New Year holidays.
Students from Beijing No. 4 High School — many of whom pass the entrance exams for the country’s top universities every year, including Peking University and Tsinghua University — must be studying hard at home.
I often come across ads for online education in the city. Some operators are trying to attract 12th graders preparing for the exams by offering free classes. For the students, that must be the last resort. All I can do is to keep my fingers crossed for them.
Thursday, April 2: On-again, off-again face masks
Chinese President Xi Jinping was in a good mood — and was not wearing a mask — when he visited Xixi National Wetland Park in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on Tuesday.
The other day, the state-run China Central Television aired footage of a woman on a small boat waving to Xi. “Would you like to join us?” she asked the president. When he asked how many people could get on the boat, she said six.
“I wish we could, but I don’t think everyone can get in,” Xi replied, smiling and pointing at around 10 aides.
Few of the aides were wearing masks. Were they sending a message that the government is winning the monthslong fight against the coronavirus?
To Xi, Zhejiang is like a second home. He served as head of the province, among other roles, from 2002 to 2007. His recent visit lasted four days through Wednesday — an unusually long domestic tour.
After the park, Xi visited Hangzhou’s big data-driven urban management center. “We should not let our guards down,” Xi said, adding that people should avoid mass gatherings and emphasizing that the virus battle continues. Noticeably, he had a mask on.
Xi’s words have a profound effect. At a news conference on Tuesday, a Beijing government official stressed that the virus had not disappeared and asked citizens to obey the rules, including on mask usage.
The next day, a few people who had stopped wearing masks put them back on.
Wednesday, April 1: As crowds return, will COVID-19 also make a comeback?
Beijing’s roads are getting crowded again — enough for morning and evening rush-hour traffic jams. I have not seen such bottlenecks since late January.
Subways and other public transport networks are also filling up as residents return to work. But some say people are driving more, due to fears they might catch the virus on trains.
Normally, Beijing authorities restrict the use of cars to limit traffic and pollution. Residents can only drive on certain days of the week, based on the last digit of their license plate. Violators face a fine of 100 yuan ($14).
This rule was temporarily lifted during the outbreak, since congestion was not a problem. Now residents are anxious about when the restriction will be reinstated.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, crowds flocked to Yuyuantan Park to see the cherry blossoms. Although security guards were on hand, asking people not to congregate in one place, the visitors were busy snapping photos of the flowers.
The capital seems to be intoxicated with its apparent victory over the virus. My impression is that residents are loosening up after months of isolation. I can’t help feeling a little worried about the possibility of a second wave of infections.
Tetsushi Takahashi is Nikkei’s bureau chief in China.