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Beijing Diary

A Chinese girl shooting 'Japanese soldiers' with a toy gun

Nikkei's China bureau chief offers snapshots of politics amid the pandemic

Japan's and China's histories together are already haunting the relationship between new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Source photos by Kyodo and Tetsushi Takahashi)

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, Sept. 28

A Chinese friend sent me a shocking video the other day.

At a kindergarten's play or something, a 4- or 5-year-old girl wearing a uniform of the Red Army, the predecessor of the People's Liberation Army, shoots enemies at random with a toy gun. Enemy after enemy falls.

Upon closer inspection, the enemies are carrying guns adorned by the Japanese flag.

After shooting all of the enemies, the girl runs away with a five-star red flag -- the Chinese flag -- in her hand. Then dozens of children in Red Army uniforms stand up and salute her.

The video lasts about 10 seconds.

I don't know when or where it was taken. The children probably didn't know what they were doing. But these kids will remember the Japanese flag as a symbol for "the bad guys." As a Japanese, I felt sadness.

I saw this video on Chinese social media on Saturday, the day after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their first phone conversation.

China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that Xi called on Suga to build Sino-Japanese relations that suit the demands of a new era after appropriately dealing with important and sensitive issues, such as the countries' histories.

Amid rising tensions with the U.S., Xi no doubt would like to emphasize relations with Japan. But I feel the Chinese president has sent the following message: If Japan turns its back on China, Beijing is ready to bring up the history issue at any time.

The People's Daily newspaper, the main mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, on Saturday gave more front-page prominence to Xi's phone call with Angolan President Joao Lourenco than to the Xi-Suga call. The message to Japan is that China will not give preferential treatment to its neighbor.

Beijing has become more nervous about relations with Japan as it gauges growing anti-Chinese sentiment among Japanese.

Beijing is also growing anxious that Tokyo might be turning its back on China.

Japan's new prime minister chose his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, as the first world leader to talk to by phone. Sino-Australian relations have become strained over the spread of the novel coronavirus. By way of comparison, Xi was No. 7 on Suga's to-phone list, lower down than South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Suga told Xi he would like to discuss issues of deep concern to the region and international community. He must have had the Senkaku Islands and Hong Kong in mind.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi plans to visit Japan next month, probably to sound out Suga on exactly what the prime minister is thinking.

Meanwhile, China on Thursday marks the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and already a giant flower basket has appeared in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Beijing's diplomacy faces a tough road ahead, in stark contrast to the festive mood that has taken hold in the country since it contained the deadly virus.

Friday, Sept. 25: A Korean War hero's death comes as tensions rise between old foes

On Thursday, the news of a legendary fighter pilot's death made the front page of the People's Liberation Army Daily. "Wang Hai, former Air Force commander, dies at 95." The death came on Aug. 2 in Beijing.

I didn't know about Wang until I visited the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution in July.

The following description was attached to the exhibition of the MiG-15 fighter jet used in the Korean War in the early 1950s: "Wang Hai, the pilot of this fighter jet, was given the title of the First Class combat hero of the Volunteer Air Force for shooting down nine enemy aircraft."

"Enemy aircraft" means American aircraft. In China, the Korean War is often called the "War to Resist America and Aid Korea."

"Resist America and Aid Korea" was a slogan used by the Chinese Communist Party during the Korean War.

When the People's Republic of China was founded in October 1949, the People's Liberation Army didn't have an air force. The Chinese Air Force was formed on Nov. 11, about a month later, at the direction of Mao Zedong.

Why, then, could Wang, a pilot of the newly created Chinese Air Force, shoot down mighty U.S. Air Force fighter jets? Because pilots of the former Imperial Japanese Army taught Wang how to.

In September 1945, right after the end of World War II, the Fourth Squadron of the Kwantung Army, based in the former Manchuria, surrendered to the Chinese Communist Party's Army. Lin Biao was then the commandant of the army in northeastern China. Lin was officially designated as Mao's successor but died in a mysterious 1971 plane crash.

Instead of taking them captive, Lin made an unusual proposal to the surrendered former fighter pilots of the Imperial Japanese Army. He asked them to teach flight techniques. In March 1946, about 300 Japanese POWs became instructors of the army's first aviator training school, Mudanjiang Aviator School, in Jilin Province.

Wang graduated from the school, then made use of the techniques he learned there in becoming a legendary fighter pilot during the Korean War. Wang was among many graduates of the school who made up the Chinese Air Force in those early days. It is ironic that U.S. aircraft, which defeated Japan in World War II, were shot down in the Korean War by Chinese Air Force pilots instructed by Japanese.

Oct. 25 will mark the 70th anniversary of China's intervention in the Korean War. As military tensions between the U.S. and China heighten in the South China Sea and elsewhere, the old "Resist America and Aid Korea" slogan can be seen in Chinese state media. Amid these tensions comes the death of the hero of the Korean War.

Will the U.S. and China fight each other in another war? Japan cannot afford to stand on the sidelines.

Friday, Sept. 18: China looks back on war with Japan and ahead to future with Suga

On Sept. 18, 1931 -- 89 years ago today -- the Imperial Japanese Army blew up a section of the South Manchuria Railway in what is now Shenyang, in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning. They made the bombing look like the work of Chinese dissidents and launched a military campaign in response, in an episode remembered as the Manchurian Incident.

The Chinese Communist Party now regards the day of the bombing as the start of "the Chinese people's war of resistance against Japanese aggression." But it once considered the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937 -- a skirmish in a Beijing suburb -- as the beginning of the anti-Japanese war.

It was President Xi Jinping who paved the way for redefining the conflict. In a September 2015 speech, he said, "The Chinese people, having fought tenaciously for 14 years, won a great victory in their war of resistance against Japanese aggression."

Amid icy Sino-Japanese relations, China's Ministry of Education in January 2017 issued a notice informing the public that indeed, the eight-year conflict was actually a 14-year one. The official beginning of the war thus became the railway bombing, known as the Liutiaohu Incident or simply the September 18 Incident.

The war is a fixture of China's patriotic education and efforts to enhance the party's authority.

On Thursday, I visited the museum that bears the war's full name -- the Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression -- near Marco Polo Bridge. It reopened to the public, including foreign nationals, only recently after a lengthy closure due to the pandemic.

I came across a group of nearly 20 police officers in the square outside the building.

They were taking a photo to commemorate their visit while chanting: "Having history branded on our mind, remembering martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the revolution, remaining true to our original aspirations and keeping our mission firmly in mind."

They were surely on a party-organized study tour ahead of the anniversary.

The museum, which begins with an exhibition on the Liutiaohu Incident, was crowded even though it was a weekday. A sign explained that the incident marked the starting point of not only the anti-Japanese war but also "the world anti-fascist war," both of which ended in 1945.

I saw numerous visitors wearing Communist Party membership badges, staring intently at the exhibits.

In the last room on the route, a photograph of Xi shaking hands with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is displayed. The picture was taken when Xi and Abe held their first meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing in November 2014.

Xi looks grumpy in the photo. He is thought to have distrusted Abe, who had visited the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and expressed his intention to revise Japan's pacifist postwar constitution.

Naturally, there is still no photo on display of Abe's successor, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who just took office on Wednesday.

But Xi did send a congratulatory message to Suga that day. It is unusual for the president to send such a greeting, rather than only Premier Li Keqiang, who is Suga's counterpart under diplomatic protocol.

The move likely reflects Beijing's high hopes for Suga. When will a photo of Xi and Suga shaking hands wind up in the war museum? I'll be watching for one.

Monday, Sept. 14: Why a mysterious 1971 plane crash still haunts Chinese politics

The "Lin Biao Incident" of Sept. 13, 1971, during the Cultural Revolution, is arguably the murkiest moment in contemporary Chinese history.

Within China, most just call it the "Sept. 13 Incident." Lin was the vice chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. But in the early hours of that September day, his plane crashed in a grassy field in Mongolia, killing all nine people aboard.

Lin is said to have been fleeing to the Soviet Union after a failed coup attempt, which was to involve the assassination of supreme leader Mao Zedong.

Lin's death remains shrouded in mystery. He was known as Mao's "close comrade-in-arms" and was designated his successor at the party's national congress in April 1969. Why did he plot to assassinate Mao two years later? These events are still one of the party's biggest taboos.

About 2 km northwest of Beijing's Zhongnanhai area, where the party is headquartered, there is a place called Maojiawan. Lin lived there for nearly 20 years, from the 1950s.

I visited Maojiawan on Saturday, though I could not enter because it was surrounded by high walls. When I stood in front of the gate, presumably once used by Lin to come and go, a middle-aged man came out to speak to me.

"Are you looking for Lin Biao's house?" he asked. It seems there are quite a few curious visitors like me.

The man said he is from northeastern China. Lin served as commander-in-chief in the region in the late 1940s, during the Communist Party's civil war with the Nationalist Party.

The man, who said his grandfather fought as a Communist soldier under Lin's command, made no secret of his respect for the late leader. "Commander-in-chief Lin was a great figure," he said. "It is a historical fact and cannot be changed."

Lin is still highly regarded for his military prowess, having led the Communist forces to many victories. At the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution in Beijing, you can see numerous photographs of Lin leading troops at the front.

Mao and Lin met in the second half of the 1920s at Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province, the Communist Party's first revolutionary base, and then continued to work together. It was Lin who compiled the book "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung" and led the Cultural Revolution, which erupted in 1966. The supreme leader and his designated successor seemed to have full confidence in each other.

Decades later, the cause of Mao and Lin's apparent falling out is anyone's guess.

In general, powerful people often come to fear losing their authority once their successor is chosen. Mao's suspicions that Lin posed a threat may have grown gradually.

Current President Xi Jinping, also the Communist Party's general secretary, has yet to reveal who will succeed him. Xi is widely expected to enter a third term at the party's next national congress in autumn 2022, rather than retiring.

While looking at the walls around Maojiawan, where Lin lived, I wondered whether the lessons of the Lin Biao Incident are having some impact on Xi's judgment.

Friday, Sept. 11: Xi's 'Clean Plate' campaign conjures memories of Mao

Wednesday was the 44th anniversary of Mao Zedong's death. The founding father of modern China is still beloved by many citizens.

When I walked past Tiananmen Square before noon that day, I saw many people coming out of the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, also known as the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, where his body is embalmed and enshrined.

The hall is usually only open in the morning, but visitors were allowed in during the afternoon as well. They had been asked to make reservations to visit by the previous day.

It was Mao who launched the infamous Cultural Revolution. Why, then, do many Chinese still revere him? Many say that everyone was poor in the Mao era. The leader himself is said to have led a simple life until his death. For those who are unhappy with China's widening wealth gap, he symbolizes a more equal society.

"Eat more when you are busy, but eat less when you are not busy" -- Mao often urged people to save on food from the 1950s to the 1960s. China was on the verge of starvation back then. As a leader, it was up to him to set an example.

Following in Mao's footsteps, President Xi Jinping in mid-August abruptly ordered the public to stop wasting food. The "Clean Plate" campaign began immediately nationwide. All over Beijing, posters now warn against leaving leftovers.

When I went to Quanjude, a state-run Peking duck restaurant chain, staff members in black uniforms were watching over the tables. They wore pins that said "no food waste supervisors."

"Our job is to tell customers not to order more than they can eat," one said. "We encourage customers to order a moderate amount of food and pack up leftovers."

Da bao is a Chinese custom to take home leftovers from restaurants. This practice had become less common as China grew more affluent, but a single order from Xi seems to have revived it.

But why was his warning suddenly necessary? "Our country continues to have a good crop, but we always have to have a sense of urgency toward food security," China's state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted the president as saying.

Xi must have the rising tensions with the U.S. in mind. I can't help but think that the Clean Plate campaign is a way to rally the nation together to cope with the crisis, recalling the days when the country was impoverished.

Monday, Sept. 7: Surrounded by the 'Red Army' at China's 'revolutionary holy site'

Last weekend, I was finally able to visit a place I'd been eager to see: Jinggangshan in Jiangxi Province. It was in these mountains that Mao Zedong organized peasants for the first time and established a stronghold for an armed struggle at the end of the 1920s.

I had planned to make the trip in February but was forced to postpone it due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that the outbreak is largely under control in China, people are allowed to travel almost freely within the country.

My excursion to the Chinese Communist Party's "revolutionary holy site" was my first trip out of Beijing in eight months. Upon arrival, I was surprised to see numerous tourists.

Actually, "tourists" is not quite the right word. Most of them appeared to be on training trips organized by party-related organizations and companies.

They disembarked from large buses, one after another, in groups of dozens. They were wearing uniforms of the Red Army, the predecessor of the People's Liberation Army. It was a rather strange scene.

When I went to the Jinggangshan Revolution Museum, I found a long line at the entrance for group visitors. In contrast, no one was waiting at the gate for individuals. When I presented my passport, the attendant appeared surprised and conferred with his boss. "You are the first foreign national to come here since the coronavirus outbreak began," the attendant told me.

He confirmed that I had not traveled outside China since mid-January and finally let me in.

In the autumn of 1927, following an unsuccessful armed uprising in Hunan Province, Mao led the remaining troops and fled into the mountains. He recruited poor peasants and launched a guerrilla war, descending from higher ground and assaulting landowners.

The Communist Party's Central Committee had aimed to take power by organizing workers in urban areas. But this idea hit a dead end in what was still an underdeveloped agricultural country.

The Communists were driven into a corner by the Nationalist Party in the cities and brought to the brink of collapse. But Mao saved the embattled movement from its life-or-death crisis by adopting a strategy of "besieging cities from farming villages." His troops gained strength and routed the Nationalist military about 20 years later, resulting in the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Without that shift in Mao's strategy, which can be traced back to Jinggangshan, the Communist Party would not have taken power. Successive supreme leaders have made a point of visiting the area for this reason.

President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping visited in February 2016 and described the place as "a mountain of revolution," "a mountain of fighting," "a mountain of heroes" and "a mountain of glory."

Political pundits often point out that Xi's Belt and Road Initiative -- which calls for the creation of a massive economic zone linking China to Europe by land and sea -- is modeled after Mao's strategy of "besieging cities from farming villages." They see the BRI as a strategy for battling the U.S. by flexing China's economic muscle and bringing emerging countries to its side.

As I watched the groups in their Red Army uniforms, I thought to myself that modern China has inherited Mao's DNA.

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