Beijing Diary: On the lookout for political clues in Tiananmen

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.

Friday, May 8

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 Joseph 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 supressed 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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