Beijing Diary: Trump gives China a PR win on Tiananmen eve

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.

Wednesday, June 3

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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