Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.
TOKYO -- The J-20, China's most advanced stealth fighter, was among the warplanes that took part in a dry run Sunday as the Chinese Communist Party prepared to celebrate its 100th anniversary on July 1.
The same day as the rehearsal, leaders of the Group of Seven major industrialized countries wrapped up their three-day summit in Cornwall, England, releasing a joint declaration highly critical of China.
The declaration ticks all the boxes regarding China's troubling actions. It calls on China to respect human rights and freedoms in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and to respect freedom and autonomy for Hong Kong, as enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law. It also stresses the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and expresses strong opposition to attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.
The fact that the G-7 document coincides with the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party is telling, and such a clash of values is likely to bedevil the world for years to come.
Also on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued an important order, calling for efforts to ward off major emergencies, "maintain overall social stability, and create a good atmosphere for celebrations of the 100th anniversary."
He made the remarks during an emergency meeting to discuss responses to a deadly gas explosion in Hubei Province.
But a deeper inspection reveals Xi's remarks were not solely a reaction to a spate of accidents in the country but reflect the tension that began gripping Beijing's Zhongnanghai compound -- where Xi and other Chinese leaders have their offices -- after the G-7 took its unprecedentedly harsh stance.
If China were to fire off a testy response or take specific countermeasures it would only worsen relations with the West and risk pouring cold water on the festive mood at home ahead of the centenary.
China has already paid a price for its diplomatic blundering this year.
When the European Union in March imposed sanctions on China over human rights abuses against the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, Beijing immediately took strong countermeasures.
But that led to the European Parliament's decision in May to freeze deliberations toward ratifying an investment pact between the EU and China, one of Beijing's few positive connections left with Europe.
This time, Beijing has responded with relative calm to the G-7, as it pins its hopes on slight differences between the summit participants on how to deal with China. Proof of this came in the form of China's initial response, a statement from its embassy in London.
The party is also careful not to look too merry ahead of the centenary celebration as countries around the world, including developing ones, are still suffering from COVID-19.
That is one reason there will be no massive military parade showing off new missiles or weapons on July 1.
It appears that foreign dignitaries invited to the ceremony, mainly political party officials, have already arrived and are under quarantine, although their number is not so large. China will need to be careful not to give the foreign officials and friends of China an unfavorable impression.
Xi's administration has flagged two centenaries as major milestones: the 100th anniversary of the party's establishment and the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic of China's foundation, in 2049.
Xi will take center stage on July 1, but not as the president of a country. Instead, he will make his presence felt as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
And here lies the root cause of tensions with many countries.
In an ordinary country, where political parties and the government are different entities, the anniversary of a ruling party is a private event, exclusively for party organizations and party members. It should be unrelated to government organizations and the public.
But in China, the nation's constitution stipulates that the Communist Party's leadership defines the socialist system that runs the country. "It is prohibited for any organization or individual to damage the socialist system," the constitution says.
U.S. President Joe Biden has framed the great-power competition as a battle between democracy and autocracy. China's case is more complicated. The party, which boasts 92 million members, more than Germany's entire population, always comes before the state and government agencies.
There have been moves in the past to explore the separation of party organizations and government agencies. In the 1980s, when the Chinese military aimed for modernization, making the military specialize in national defense -- and not party defense -- was discussed.
But since the Xi era began, China has stopped bothering to hide its unique political structure and become perfectly happy putting the party before the state. It is even working to strengthen the party's position.
Around 2015 at military facilities across the country, signs shouting slogans by former President Jiang Zemin started to be replaced by Xi's catchphrases.
The new slogans called for "building a people's military that obeys the party's command, can fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct."
The key element is that the military obeys the party. Given the chain of command, the People's Liberation Army is the party's military; its nature as a national military is merely a formality.
Furthermore, Xi has hailed a policy of "military-civilian integration" -- combining the party's military with private companies' technological developments -- to help achieve the strong military goal.
Simultaneously, China is boosting state-owned enterprises. It is the party, not the state, that decides who leads SOEs.
All in all, the series of moves in the Xi era seem to be aimed at returning to a socialist system, albeit one that takes a new shape. Most sensitive to the changing currents are the executives at private companies, such as Alibaba Group Holding, who live in fear of not knowing what will happen next.
When one thinks of why the G-7 joined forces to deal with China, and why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization portrayed China as a "systemic challenge," the answer comes down to the existence of the Chinese Communist Party.
Is the G-7 at odds with China, the country, or with the party? It sounds like the latter.
A political system with Chinese characteristics, one that is not compatible with democracy, is now expanding its footprint in Europe and the rest of the world through the Belt and Road Initiative.
Such was the G-7's sense of crisis in Cornwall that the leaders came up with their own framework for supporting infrastructure projects in developing countries, one that is to counterbalance the Chinese initiative.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday pointed out that the G-7 "is not a club that is hostile to China."
While that is true, the cold reality is that unless the G-7 nations unite, China cannot be stopped in its quest to unilaterally alter the status quo.
The world will be watching what Xi says at the ceremony on July 1.
If the future he portrays is an extension of what is in place today -- party before state and China's further commitment to its own socialist path -- the country's gap with the G-7 and the Western world will only widen, and the clash of values will linger for quite some time.