Beijing Diary: China’s congress, from the outside looking in

Linda J. Dodson

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.

Wednesday, May 20

China’s most important political meetings kick off this week after a more than two-month delay due to the coronavirus: The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress.

On Tuesday afternoon, the area around the meeting venue — the Great Hall of the People — was already heavily guarded. I felt nervous just pointing my smartphone camera out of my car window. Taking pictures is not prohibited, but I reflexively bent over when an armed policeman stared at me.

The Political Consultative Conference convenes on Thursday, followed by the opening of the NPC on Friday. The former will be chaired by Vice Premier Wang Yang, while the latter will be led by Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee. Recent footage on state-run China Central Television showed Wang wearing a face mask, while Li went without one.

The Political Consultative Conference is older, but the National People’s Congress, launched five years later, is now the country’s highest governing body. This is reflected in the stature of the men who will preside over them: Wang ranks fourth in the Communist Party hierarchy, while Li is third, after only President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Li Zhanshu is known as Xi’s closest ally. Back in the 1980s, when Li was the head of Wuji County in Hebei Province, Xi took the reins in neighboring Zhengding County. They struck up a friendship that has lasted for nearly 40 years.

Wang, in contrast, has only been working for Xi for about 10 years — though the president is said to have complete confidence in him. Wang was born to a poor family and worked at a food factory after graduating from junior high school.

When I covered last year’s National People’s Congress, I remember Xi looked sullen as Premier Li read out government activity reports for nearly two hours. He only smiled when he chatted with Wang, who was sitting next to him.

Until last year, even foreign reporters were allowed to enter the Great Hall and freely cover the two meetings, as long as they registered beforehand. It was a precious opportunity to glimpse the relationships among China’s top leaders — an opportunity few will have this year.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seems I will not be able to enter the Great Hall. The meetings will be shortened significantly, and most interviews will be conducted remotely.

The circumstances surrounding the biggest events in Chinese politics are anything but normal.

Monday, May 18: Foreign residents left behind as China reopens

Like it or not, I’m often reminded that I am a foreigner in Beijing — even more so after the coronavirus pandemic. It happened again when I visited the new Xiangshan Revolution Memorial Hall, on the city’s western outskirts, over the weekend.

Xiangshan, the site of a Qing dynasty 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 Nationalists. Mao Zedong and other party leaders spent nearly six months there, formulating plans for the People’s Republic of China, which was established on Oct. 1.

With President Xi Jinping’s backing, Mao’s residence and the new Xiangshan Revolution Memorial Hall opened to the public in September 2019, as part of China’s 70th anniversary celebrations. The museum had been closed since late January, due to the outbreak, but I heard that it reopened earlier this month. So I went.

A security guard, who was standing on the path leading up to the museum, let me in immediately after I showed my passport and Health Kit on my phone, which confirms I have not been in a dangerously infected area in the past 14 days. But when I showed my passport at the museum entrance, I hit a snag.

“Foreigners cannot come in,” a young female staff member told me in an apologetic tone. When I told her that I had been able to enter last October, she said foreign visitors were not allowed because the pandemic continues in many parts of the world.

Shutting out foreign nationals who just arrived in China may be understandable. But I am a resident of Beijing, and I have not left the capital or its environs since the crisis started. I told her this, but she just kept apologizing and saying she had to obey the rules. I gave up and left.

It seems the Xiangshan Revolution Memorial Hall is not the only museum that now refuses to accept international visitors. I phoned the National Museum of China, east of Tiananmen Square, only to be told that foreigners will not be allowed in for a while.

The government still imposes tight restrictions on foreign visitors, and the two museums are likely just following official policy. Nevertheless, as China faces global criticism over its handling of the coronavirus, discriminatory treatment of foreigners could also be seen as a sign that the country is distancing itself from the international community.

Incidentally, today is International Museum Day. Is China — which had opened its doors to the outside world — trying to keep its museums to itself? I hope not.

Friday, May 15: The foreign leader Xi Jinping has yet to call

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been on a “telephone offensive” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday evening alone, he called Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in quick succession.

“With arduous efforts, China and South Korea have both effectively contained the epidemic,” Xi told Moon, according to China’s Xinhua. The news agency quoted Moon as saying that he “highly appreciates the notable results China has achieved” under Xi’s “strong leadership.”

Having successfully contained their outbreaks, China and South Korea are rapidly drawing closer. A South Korean press briefing revealed that the two leaders also agreed to arrange for Xi to visit South Korea sometime this year. It could end up being Xi’s first foreign trip since the coronavirus crisis started.

On the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website, you can see a list of the foreign dignitaries Xi has called or corresponded with. Since late January, when China locked down the city of Wuhan, he has communicated with 70 of his global counterparts. This week’s call with Moon was their second during this period.

Many of the calls have been with emerging countries that rely on Chinese assistance. But Xi has also had two conversations each with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump.

The leader of one major country is conspicuously absent: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Kong Xuanyou, the Chinese ambassador to Japan, told reporters at the end of March that a telephone conversation between Xi and Abe “will materialize in the not-so-distant future.”

Nearly two months on, the wait continues.

Since the postponement of Xi’s state visit to Japan, planned for early April, it appears that efforts to improve the bilateral relationship have stalled.

On May 8, two Chinese ships intruded into Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and chased a Japanese fishing boat. The Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islets called Diaoyu in China, remain a source of tension between the neighbors.

When Japan protested the May 8 incident, Zhao Lijian, deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, said nonchalantly that Beijing hoped Japan would “avoid triggering more incidents” related to the islands.

Once again, Sino-Japanese ties seem to have reached a turning point.

Wednesday, May 13: Xi’s message from a World Heritage site

President Xi Jinping looked relaxed when he visited the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Shanxi Province, on Monday.

Xi toured the northern province on Monday and Tuesday — his fourth such inspection trip outside Beijing since the vast country entered a state of emergency in mid-January due to the coronavirus.

Xi’s other tours took him to Wuhan, the original outbreak epicenter in Hubei Province, along with Zhejiang Province and Shaanxi Province. This week’s visit to Shanxi is likely the president’s last before the annual session of the National People’s Congress — China’s parliament — gets underway on May 22.

The Yungang Grottoes were built during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, from the fourth to sixth centuries. They are considered China’s premier example of Buddhist cave art.

A report on the state-run China Central Television showed Xi entering some of the caves for a close look at the sculptures and murals. The president, who doubles as general secretary of the Communist Party, stressed the importance of preserving the site and other cultural assets.

Calling them precious resources that cannot be reproduced or replaced, he said the development of the tourism industry depends on their protection and warned against excessive commercialization.

Then, some “tourists” suddenly appeared, running to Xi and calling out to him enthusiastically — “Hello, general secretary!”

It was a common scene, but it felt too staged to me. After all, the threat from the coronavirus has not disappeared.

The Yungang Grottoes in China’s northern province of Shanxi.

  © Getty Images

Was Xi’s stop at the Yungang Grottoes — at the risk of criticism over sightseeing in a crisis — a message that he is confident the virus is under control?

Perhaps there was another explanation. The visit came as U.S. President Donald Trump continues to bash China over the origins of the pandemic. Xi may have wanted to show the public that he is calm in the face of this pressure, as the leader of a great power should be.

Wednesday’s edition of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, carried a report on Xi’s inspection tour of Shanxi. The top story on its front page had a headline advocating “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” — a reference to the key slogan of “Xi Jinping Thought,” as the president’s ideology is known.

The campaign to maintain one-party rule with Xi as the “core” seems to be progressing quietly in anticipation of the post-pandemic era.

Monday, May 11: A visit to Xi’s new $283bn city

As tough restrictions on travel outside Beijing were relaxed at the end of April, I took a weekend trip to the Xiongan New Area in neighboring Hebei Province.

The new city, under development since April 2017, is a pet project of President Xi Jinping. When the area came into view, after a two-hour drive southwest on an expressway, it looked different than what I remembered from my last visit two years ago.

The development plan calls for spending 2 trillion yuan ($283 billion) over about two decades to build a city spread across 2,000 sq. kilometers — rivaling Tokyo in size. The envisioned population is over 2 million.

Where I had once seen endless farmland, a group of large construction machines now stood. The rezoning of the central area appeared to be nearly complete, paving the way for building construction. The presence of scattered workers suggested that the project was back underway after a suspension due to the coronavirus.

The Xiongan Station construction site was impressive. The huge main building — its frame appeared to be nearly complete — reminded me of an airport terminal. It will become a major transport hub, with high-speed trains coming and going.

That the government is building such an enormous station in the middle of nowhere is a testament to Xi’s high expectations for the project.

The Xiongan citizen service center was closed to the general public as a virus precaution. On my previous visit, the place had been crowded with visitors.

I was able to sneak a peek from outside. Baidu, China’s answer to Google, is testing its Apollo self-driving platform there. I could see a small driverless bus moving around. Global companies including Toyota Motor, Honda Motor, Volkswagen and Intel are working with Baidu on the technology.

The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has also started testing a digital version of the yuan in the area, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Xiongan is due for completion in the mid-2030s, as Xi and the Communist Party push their pivotal “millennium plan.” I wonder how this futuristic city — intended as a symbol of high-tech power — will look then.

Friday, May 8: On the lookout for political clues in Tiananmen

People are finally returning to Tiananmen Square.

To be sure, it is not yet crowded with tourists like it was before the coronavirus pandemic began, spreading from China to the rest of the world. But the difference is clear. Through April, the square had been completely deserted, except for the armed police officers who stood guard.

I visited on Thursday afternoon. But what I had wanted to see was no longer there: A huge portrait of Sun Yat-sen, known as “a pioneer of China’s democratic revolution.”

His portrait is hung in front of the Monument of the People’s Heroes, in the center of the square, for two occasions — May Day, on May 1, and National Day, the anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s foundation on Oct. 1.

The portrait of Mao Zedong, the country’s founding father, is always present in the square. But the scene of Mao and Sun facing each other can only be observed twice a year.

Sun’s portrait has been part of the May Day tradition for a few decades now. Until 1988, portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin had been placed in Tiananmen.

By 1988, 10 years had passed since the beginning of China’s “reform and opening-up” period. Did the government decide it was strange to continue hanging the portraits of four symbols of socialism? Or was there another reason the Communist Party’s Central Committee decided in April 1989 to hang only the portrait of Sun for May Day and National Day?

Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of the party, died that same month. He had fallen from power in 1987, after showing understanding of students calling for democratization. Activities to mourn his death in Tiananmen Square looked set to erupt into a massive pro-democracy movement.

It was under these circumstances that the party decided to hang only the portrait of Sun, who had led the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty. Not long afterward, on June 4 of 1989, the military suppressed the pro-democracy student protests in the Tiananmen crackdown.

There are no known documents that link the decision to hang Sun’s portrait with the pro-democracy movement. But Tiananmen Square always reflects China’s political situation at a given moment.

Any changes in the square after the coronavirus warrant close attention.

Thursday, May 7: Mike Pompeo pokes the dragon

“Liar,” “political virus,” “enemy of the entire humanity” — this is how China’s government-affiliated news outlets have described U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent days.

Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Daily and China Central Television have all used such strong words since Pompeo appeared on the U.S. network ABC last Sunday. He said the U.S. had “enormous evidence” to support allegations that the coronavirus first infected a human in a biomedical lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

This must have gotten under Beijing’s skin. “The evil Pompeo is shamelessly spreading poison and hoaxes,” a CCTV newscaster said on Monday night, her voice shaking in anger.

Pompeo’s criticism of China came across as somewhat immature, with his reference to the “Wuhan virus” — a term the Chinese loathe. Still, I was disgusted by the over-the-top reaction.

Pompeo last visited Beijing in October 2018. It was immediately after Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech in Washington on the U.S. administration’s policy toward China. In his address, Pence described China’s single-party rule as authoritarian.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was hostile right off the bat when he met Pompeo, demanding that the U.S. stop making “false statements.” Apparently, the secretary could not get out of Beijing fast enough. He stayed only three hours.

Looking back, I think the visit showed that tensions between the U.S. and China had entered a new phase, as they compete for the supremacy of their political systems — democracy versus one-party rule.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying seemed to be taking another jab at Pompeo by intentionally referring to him as “xiansheng,” or “mister.”

“Why doesn’t he show the evidence?” she said. “Because he doesn’t have any, does he?”

By the sounds of it, the Chinese government has grown more confident in its ability to maintain its grip, now that it has the coronavirus under control.

Friday, May 1: Forbidden City reopens without fanfare

Beijing’s summer always comes suddenly. The temperature is expected to hit 35 C on Friday, the start of a five-day Labor Day weekend. This would be a record, after a coronavirus-marred winter and barely noticeable spring.

The Forbidden City, which has been closed since Jan. 25 to slow the outbreak, reopened on Friday. The number of daily visitors will be limited to 5,000 for now — 3,000 in the morning and 2,000 in the afternoon. I tried to buy a ticket in advance, but they were already sold out for the weekend.

I stopped by to check on the Meridian Gate, the palace’s main entrance, on Thursday afternoon. There was a sign in English: “As part of anti-COVID-19 measures, the Palace Museum has adopted a temporary plan to avoid large crowds by limited visiting routes and hours.” Workers were busy preparing for the reopening.

Before the outbreak, the number of visitors was restricted to 80,000 a day. Those who are lucky enough to get tickets now will be able to explore the Forbidden City in unusual peace and quiet.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City with China’s President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan in November 2017.

  © Reuters

Come to think of it, when U.S. President Donald Trump visited Beijing in November 2017, President Xi Jinping reserved the Forbidden City for themselves. Surely Xi never imagined that, two and a half years later, relations with his American guest would be this strained over the handling of a pandemic.

With the U.S. still fighting the virus, a festive mood in the Chinese capital could rub Trump the wrong way. Perhaps the quiet reopening of the Forbidden City is out of consideration for the U.S.

Tetsushi Takahashi is Nikkei’s bureau chief in China.

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