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Beijing Diary

Abe's exit gives Japan-China watchers questions to chew on

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

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had this Peking duck in Beijing -- and years later his wife, Akie, went back for another helping. (Source photos by Tetsushi Takahashi and Uichiro Kasai)

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, Aug. 31

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's picture still hangs on the wall of the DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant in central Beijing.

When he visited the Chinese capital to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in November 2014, Abe had dinner there with his wife, Akie, and aides. The slightly out-of-focus photo -- which was probably taken surreptitiously by a restaurant employee -- circulated widely on Chinese social media.

In the picture, Abe is carefully watching a cook cut his Peking duck. Back then, the bilateral relationship was tense over Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands and Abe's visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead.

"Hey cook, why don't you cut Abe and work off a grudge for the Chinese people," read one nasty comment online, according to local reports at the time.

The day after Abe dined at DaDong, he had his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. A picture of the two leaders shaking hands without smiling drew a great deal of attention. Looking back, that may have been the low point for modern Sino-Japan relations.

Over the following years, ties improved little by little. Xi was set to visit Japan this past April -- a trip that was supposed to elevate the bilateral relationship. The visit was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, and no new dates have been set.

Meanwhile, anti-China sentiment has been growing in Japan over Beijing's imposition of the Hong Kong national security law and its territorial moves in the South China Sea. Some lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have called on the government to officially cancel Xi's state visit.

Abe's abrupt resignation on Friday introduces a new element of uncertainty. Depending on the next prime minister's stance on China, relations could deteriorate again.

"Many Chinese people don't like Abe," the Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in its editorial on Saturday. "But China must win the support of countries like Japan."

This signals Beijing's desire to strengthen ties with other governments amid its escalating conflict with the U.S.

When Abe made his first solo official visit to China as prime minister, in October 2018, Akie visited DaDong again on her own. On Saturday, I went to the restaurant and asked a staff member what that was like.

"I heard that she ate with her aides in a private room on the second floor, but I don't know the details because I wasn't there at the time," the woman told me.

I asked her if she knew about the Japanese prime minister's resignation. She only said she had seen it on the news.

After Abe's departure, no one knows what lies ahead for Japan-China relations.

Friday, Aug. 28: 'Wartime air defense' signs unnerve Beijingers amid US tensions

I came across a strange, rather disturbing sign on a street in Beijing.

Its title translates to, "Civil air defense mission and assignment." Referring to "wartime air defense," it reads, "Based on the need for national defense, protective measures are taken by mobilizing and organizing the masses, and damage from air raids is reduced."

A photo of another, similar sign is circulating on social media. "How to regain peace of mind after air raids," it says. It then offers advice on reducing psychological damage after coming under air attacks from enemy forces.

One could be forgiven for thinking China is on the eve of war.

The country has a Civil Air Defense Office, created in November 1950 amid the Korean War. Its main missions have been to procure goods in preparation for air raids by enemy forces and push propaganda. The office appears to be behind the signs.

It is uncertain how long they have been up, but this is clearly a time of unprecedented U.S.-China tension over the South China Sea. Some Chinese internet users have expressed concern that the country might be close to going to war with the U.S. after all.

On Tuesday, a U.S. Air Force U-2 spy plane entered a no-fly zone imposed by the People's Liberation Army during live-fire military exercises. The next day, the PLA fired four medium-range ballistic missiles toward the South China Sea from mainland China, in what appeared to be a warning to Washington.

The PLA and the U-2 reconnaissance plane are linked by fate.

The U.S. supplied U-2s to Taiwan in the 1960s. The Nationalist Party's military frequently flew the planes to mainland China, and by 1967 five had been shot down.

The remains of Taiwan's five downed U-2s are on display at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution in Beijing, hailed as "a great military result."

After the U-2 flight on Tuesday, President Xi Jinping's government likely felt it could not sit idly by, despite any hesitation it might have about further escalating tensions with U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. The decision to launch the four missiles may have been China's way of saying it will not back down.

On the Civil Air Defense Office website, it is possible to listen to an actual air raid siren. The eerie sound makes me uneasy.

For government leaders, the onset of a crisis is not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives them a golden opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and rally the public behind them. Perhaps the Chinese leadership is daring to create a wartime atmosphere for this purpose. Judging from the recent sightings of "wartime air defense" signs, I suspect this might not be too far from the truth.

Monday, Aug. 24: Contemplating US-China friction on Deng Xiaoping's doorstep

Saturday was the 116th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping, who led China toward "reform and opening-up."

Deng saw relations with the U.S. as a matter of utmost importance. But over two decades after his death in 1997, at age 92, Deng's approach is becoming a thing of the past.

Inspired by the fine weather, I made an impromptu visit to a place where Deng once lived. It is close to Jingshan Park, just north of the Forbidden City. As I walked along a hutong -- a narrow street formed by rows of traditional houses -- the gate I was looking for came into view.

I asked an elderly man exercising out front whether it was indeed Deng's former residence. "Yes," he replied.

The man, who said he lives nearby and is in his 90s, told me he saw Deng leave the house on several occasions in the 1980s.

"We ordinary people were no longer able to speak to him because he was already a great leader," the man said, adding this was "partly because he was surrounded by many security guards."

Deng moved into the house in the late 1970s and remained there until his death. Sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the big city, Deng must have pondered how to rebuild an economy devastated by the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and create a favorable international environment for China.

The U.S. clearly factored into his strategy. Long Yongtu, who served as China's top negotiator for the country's accession to the World Trade Organization, recounted an interesting episode in a recent document.

The third plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party's 11th Central Committee decided to switch to the reform and opening-up policy in December 1978. Deng visited the U.S. the following month.

According to Long, when someone asked Deng why he was in such a hurry to go to the U.S., he replied, "I have observed the world for many years and reached one conclusion: Countries that have good relations with the U.S. have all become affluent."

Later, when Western nations banded together against China after the Tiananmen Square incident in June 1989, Deng came up with a now-famous foreign policy: tao guang yang hui, or "hiding one's capabilities and storing up one's power." It means that China should push ahead with its economic development without fighting Western nations, including the U.S.

China faithfully followed Deng's teachings and, as a result, rose to overtake Japan as the world's second-largest economy in 2010 -- trailing only the U.S.

Did China's leaders come to believe there was no longer a need for modesty in relations with Washington?

President Xi Jinping, who took the helm of the Communist Party as its general secretary and became the country's supreme leader in autumn 2012, has deviated from Deng's tao guang yang hui policy and pressed ahead toward making China a "great power."

Arguably, this has brought China's confrontation with the U.S. past a point of no return. If Deng were still alive, what would he do now? I left Deng's former residence, imagining the man himself walking out of it.

Friday, Aug. 21: China's floods pull Xi and Li away from Beijing at same time

On Thursday afternoon, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the flood-stricken district of Tongnan in Chongqing. The premier flew from Beijing to the southwestern city that morning, then made his way to the area by train and car.

"We must protect the lives and property of the people according to the important instructions of President Xi Jinping," Li was quoted as saying to senior officials of the district, according to a government website.

The district's 8,000 residents were all affected by the floods. Li walked down the muddy streets to cheer them up. He was wearing long boots, but his trousers were covered with mud.

Around the same time, Xi was in Anhui Province, about 1,000 km east of Chongqing. He entered the province on Tuesday to visit the families of firefighters who had died during rescue operations, and the victims of severe flooding.

"Chinese people have fought against natural disasters for thousands of years," Xi stressed. "We will continue fighting, drawing on our experience."

Anhui is Li's home province, while the top official in Chongqing is Chen Min'er, Xi's right-hand man. In other words, Xi and Li, who are said to have a simmering rivalry, each visited a place where the other man has deep connections.

It is very rare for Xi and Li, the Chinese Communist Party's No. 1 and No. 2 leaders, to leave Beijing on domestic trips at the same time. This speaks to the damage from the heavy rains that have lasted since June.

The water level at the Three Gorges Dam, located in the middle of the Yangtze River, is expected to reach its peak at 165 meters as early as Saturday. If more water flows in, it will likely cause further damage to downstream regions, including Anhui Province.

Back in Beijing, Thursday was the first fine day in a while, with the temperature dropping to around 20 C. Tiananmen Square and the shopping streets just south of it were packed with people. I had not seen such big crowds since the coronavirus outbreak took off in January.

I drove past Xinhua Gate, the entrance of Zhongnanhai -- the center of power in Beijing, where the Communist Party and government are headquartered.

On the inside of the gate, I could see a traditional screen with the slogan "Serve the People" in the handwriting of Mao Zedong. Xi and Li were not there, of course. As the battle with the U.S. intensified, they were off confronting the party's current domestic enemy -- not COVID-19, but floodwaters.

Friday, Aug. 7: Revisiting a Trump tweet as he hits China with a pen stroke

People are still talking about what U.S. President Donald Trump did in China nearly three years ago.

Trump continued to post messages on Twitter as usual during his visit in November 2017. In one of the tweets, he wrote: "THANK YOU for an unforgettable afternoon and evening at the Forbidden City in Beijing, President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan."

President Xi Jinping and his wife took Trump and first lady Melania on a tour of the former imperial palace where Chinese emperors once lived, now one of the country's most-visited UNESCO World Heritage sites. The palace was closed to the public all day just to entertain the couple on the first day of their visit.

Judging from his tweet that night, Trump was very happy with the lavish welcome.

It had been a big question whether Trump would tweet at all during his trip, since the platform and other Western social networks are blocked in China. His message, then, sparked speculation about how he posted it. Some suggested he must have used a special connection. Others guessed that the Chinese authorities relaxed the rules specially for him.

Back then, relations between the U.S. and China were comparatively good.

I recalled the 2017 episode as Trump signed an executive order on Thursday, banning transactions related to Chinese video sharing app TikTok and messaging app WeChat in 45 days.

The move comes as the Trump administration is stepping up pressure on not only ByteDance and Tencent -- which operate TikTok and WeChat, respectively -- but also e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and search operator Baidu. The U.S. government is now poised to shut Chinese companies out of the American telecommunications sector, citing national security.

The day may come when WeChat, China's leading social media platform, becomes unavailable in the U.S. just as Twitter is unavailable in China. Barriers in the telecom sector will further advance what many call the U.S.-China "decoupling."

The Forbidden City, where the Xis entertained the Trumps, was temporarily closed from Jan. 25 to the end of April due to the coronavirus pandemic. It reopened on May 1, but the number of visitors was initially limited to 5,000 a day. It was raised to 12,000 on July 28, making tickets easier to obtain and allowing me to visit last weekend.

I followed the same route the U.S. and Chinese leaders took, ending at the Changyinge, or Pavilion of Pleasant Sounds, where they enjoyed a Beijing opera.

I wondered, could I access Twitter from there? I tried with my smartphone, but as expected, it did not work.

Monday, Aug. 1: Xi's point man on US trade shifts focus to self-sufficient economy

A communique issued at a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party's 25-member Politburo on July 30 highlights an unfamiliar term: "big domestic cycle." The document says China will seek to establish a new development pattern, driven by this cycle.

This unleashed a torrent of speculation about what, exactly, this means.

The "domestic cycle" has come up before, however. Vice Premier Liu He emphasized it at an economic forum in mid-June. "The domestic cycle should be the main body, and the international and domestic dual cycles would be mutually promoted to form a new development framework," he said.

Then, as now, it was hard to know what to make of the statement. But as U.S. President Donald Trump takes an increasingly confrontational approach toward Beijing and a U.S.-China economic "decoupling" becomes more likely, many took it as a call to promote an economy that can keep chugging on the power of the domestic market alone -- even if it is cut off from the world.

Liu's remarks are especially noteworthy because of his close relationship with President Xi Jinping. They are said to have become acquainted when they were still in their teens.

Liu attended Beijing 101 Middle School, not far away from the Beijing Bayi School where Xi studied. Both are prestigious schools, where many military officials and party cadres send their children.

Exchanges between the schools are common -- which is how Xi seems to have befriended Liu, who is one year older.

Liu was a famously bright student. After entering Renmin University in 1979, he soon became determined to study in the U.S. When a friend asked him why, he is said to have replied: "I have already read all books at this university's library. I have nothing left to learn here."

Liu's dream finally came true in the early 1990s. He went to the U.S. for a stint as a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School and elsewhere. At the time, he could not have known he would end up on the front line of China's trade negotiations with the U.S. as vice premier nearly 30 years later.

Behind the scenes, some critics said Liu had an academic mindset and would struggle to manage tough trade negotiations with the U.S. When the two sides reached a "phase one" trade deal in January, perhaps he shared his joy with Xi.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. The U.S.-China clash is not limited to trade. The two countries are barreling toward a "new Cold War" that pits democracy against one-party rule.

Xi, who doubles as the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary, has also begun to speak about the "big domestic cycle," possibly because he is bracing for a further escalation with the U.S. Trump's statement last Friday that he intends to ban TikTok, the wildly popular video-sharing app operated by China's ByteDance, only pushes the countries closer to the brink of decoupling.

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