Xi Jinping turns 67 with Beijing back on coronavirus alert

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 15

Today is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 67th birthday.

The birthdays of China’s leaders are usually kept quiet. The Communist Party’s official documents only say that Xi was born in June 1953. It was not until a year ago today that his precise date of birth was officially revealed.

On June 15, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Xi ice cream as a birthday present while they were both visiting the Central Asian country of Tajikistan. Xi reportedly thanked Putin with a smile and gave him some Chinese tea in return.

Xi spent his formative years in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai area, where party leaders and their families live. His late father, Xi Zhongxun, served as vice premier, among other posts.

For elementary and junior high school, the young Xi attended the prestigious Beijing Bayi School, about 10 km northwest of Zhongnanhai. Many “second-generation reds” — the children of revolutionary-era party leaders — studied there.

After his rise to the top, Xi visited the school in September 2016. He stopped in the yard, where children were practicing soccer. Perhaps he felt nostalgic for the happy days that preceded his ordeal as a teenager.

His father was purged in the 1960s amid the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. In January 1969, at age 15, Xi was sent to Liangjiahe in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province, for the “re-education of intellectual youths.”

Liangjiahe is a small village in a deep valley in the Loess Plateau, or Huangtu Plateau. The seven years Xi spent there, surrounded by poverty, changed his destiny. He often says that it was during this period that he set his goal in life: to make China a great nation.

Now, as president and Communist Party general secretary, Xi’s 67th birthday holds great political significance.

There is an unwritten rule called qi shang, ba xia, which literally means “seven up, eight down.” It allows party cadres to remain in key posts if they are 67 or younger, but requires them to retire if they are 68 or older when the party’s quinquennial National Congress rolls around.

The next congress is scheduled for 2022, when Xi will be 69.

Xi has already taken a step toward a “retirement extension.” Two years ago, he pushed through a constitutional revision that scrapped the limit of two five-year presidential terms.

Nevertheless, there is no guarantee Xi will be able to remain China’s supreme leader beyond the congress. If he is to do so, he will at least have to overcome the coronavirus crisis first.

A new cluster of virus cases has emerged at a wholesale food market in Beijing. This put the capital back on alert over the weekend.

Xi’s battle with the coronavirus is not over yet.

Friday, June 12

Hua Chunying, director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, kept a stern expression during her regular news conference on Thursday.

Asked to comment on a U.S. State Department report accusing China of a religious crackdown, she lashed out, naming U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly. Washington, she said, should “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of religion.”

Hua, who has been a ministry spokesperson since 2012, is famous for her stony expression.

But there was a moment, during a news conference in December 2017, that she let her guard down and burst into laughter.

She was asked about Xiang Xiang, a giant panda born at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. But she misheard “Xiang Xiang” as “Shan Shan” — the Chinese pronunciation of the surname of Shinsuke Sugiyama, then Japan’s vice foreign minister. As a result, her reply had nothing to do with the panda.

Hua’s smiling face caught the attention of Chinese social media, as a sharp contrast from her usual no-nonsense image.

In January 2018, Taro Kono, Japan’s foreign minister at the time, visited China and posted a selfie with a smiling Hua on Twitter. This introduced her to a wider audience in Japan as an approachable Chinese diplomat.

But Hua has stopped smiling again. China’s increasingly strained relations with the U.S. over the coronavirus probably have something to do with it.

Hua plays a key role in trumpeting America’s “unreasonableness” to the world, while also making full use of Twitter — like Zhao Lijian, deputy director-general of the Information Department, who has become known as a “wolf warrior diplomat.” A smiling face would be unbefitting of her role.

She has had positive things to say about Japan in recent months, praising the country during an online briefing in early February — though this also sounded like a dig at the U.S. “Since the outbreak of the epidemic,” she said, “the Japanese government and people have expressed sympathy, understanding and support to us.”

Her statement was probably partly out of consideration for President Xi Jinping’s planned state visit to Japan in April. But the trip was postponed due to the pandemic, and there has been a subtle shift in Sino-Japanese ties.

In early May, two official Chinese vessels chased a Japanese fishing boat in Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands — uninhabited islets in the East China Sea that China claims and calls Diaoyu.

On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed concern over Beijing’s rush to implement its national security law for Hong Kong.

Speaking to reporters the same day, Hua fired back, saying Hong Kong “is purely China’s internal affair that allows no foreign interference.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry currently has only two spokespeople. Geng Shuang, who sometimes answered questions from journalists with humor, moved to a new role after holding his last news conference on June 5.

Hua and Zhao now alternate handling the daily task of pushing China’s perspective, wolf-warrior style.

Wednesday, June 10: Food for thought on Joe Biden and Chinese sentiment

U.S. presidential hopeful Joe Biden is gaining momentum ahead of the election in November. Protests over the killing of George Floyd, an African American man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis, have spread across the country, casting a shadow over President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.

Reading a headline that said “Biden leads,” I felt the urge to go to Yaoji Chaogan Restaurant near Gulou — a well-known tourist spot in Beijing.

As I wrote in an earlier Beijing Diary entry, Biden dined there in August 2011, when he was vice president to Barack Obama. Chaogan is a unique Beijing specialty — similar to pig pluck, or offal, stewed with soy sauce in Japan. It is a local favorite because it is tasty, cheap and nutritious. And Yaoji Chaogan Restaurant is a particularly popular place for it.

When I last visited, in early March, the restaurant had been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Customers could only buy takeout. Now it is possible to eat inside again. I decided to order a regular-size chaogan for 9 yuan ($1.27).

“Chaogan has few ingredients,” said a man who was eating the same dish at the next table. He started talking to me — explaining that he had come from the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region and that he was sightseeing in the capital with his family. They chose the restaurant because they had heard it is famous, but they seemed a bit disappointed.

I took the opportunity to ask him whether he knew that Biden had eaten there. The man’s answer was unexpected. “I know him. I heard he likes war more than Trump does,” he said. “For China, it might be better if he is not elected president.”

I thought he may have Biden mixed up with another politician, but perhaps this is how many ordinary Chinese see the U.S. Such sentiments — that Americans are pro-war and anti-China, and that U.S.-China relations will not improve regardless of who is elected — seem widespread.

I could not find a photo of Biden in the restaurant. I asked a staff member, and was told the picture had been moved to another location that opened a few years ago.

I stopped by the other restaurant, about 2 km east, and found a picture of Biden hanging on the wall. He looked much younger, surrounded by staff, customers and his granddaughter. During that trip, he also reportedly hit it off with then Vice President Xi Jinping.

Under Trump, once-constructive bilateral relations have deteriorated to a point where they curse each other. Biden has become increasingly critical of China in recent months, in a nod to growing anti-China sentiment in the U.S.

Will the restaurant remove the photo of Biden soon? Perhaps Biden might even prefer to have it taken down? I could not help imagining things as I nibbled on zhajiangmian, a noodle dish the former vice president had ordered.

Monday, June 8: A bridge over troubled UK-China diplomatic waters

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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