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, Oct. 26
I went to the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, west of Beijing, on Sunday to see a new special exhibit.
It focused on the 70th anniversary of the dispatch of the Chinese People's Volunteers Force to the Korean War. I had made a reservation to get in and I arrived before the 10 a.m. opening, but the line already stretched for hundreds of meters. I found myself waiting in a long queue for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak began.
"Let's display the great spirit of 'Resist America and Aid Korea' and make efforts for the great reconstruction of the Chinese people." A huge sign with this slogan was displayed in front of the museum, and visitors were snapping pictures of it.
"Resist America and Aid Korea" was trumpeted by the Chinese Communist Party during the Korean War. Seventy years on, it seems to fit the times again, more or less, as tensions with the U.S. simmer.
The exhibition described how the People's Republic of China defeated "the U.S. invaders" just after its foundation.
A mother was explaining the exhibit to her two children while walking through the museum. "Most Chinese people didn't want to have a war with the U.S. because there was a big difference between the military capabilities of the two countries," the mother said, gesturing enthusiastically. "But China had to do that because the U.S. invaders came just in front of the Chinese border with North Korea."
The exhibit included a message from founding father Mao Zedong, who led the war effort. "Chinese people were united as one. Don't you dare think of invading us. If you make us angry, we could get out of control."
President Xi Jinping quoted Mao's remark in his own speech marking the 70th anniversary of China entering the Korean War, delivered last Friday at the Great Hall of the People. "In today's world, the pursuit of unilateralism, protectionism and extreme egoism leads nowhere," Xi said.
It sounds like China is giving the U.S. an ultimatum, convinced that Washington is trying to engineer the collapse of Chinese Communist Party rule.
Xi visited the museum to see the special exhibit on Oct. 19, before it opened to the public. He might have wanted to send a message that if the U.S. keeps adding pressure, including on the issue of Taiwan, Beijing will not keep quiet -- as seen during the Korean War.
Meanwhile, the fifth plenary session of the Communist Party's 19th Central Committee kicked off today at the Jingxi Hotel, which is located diagonally across from the museum.
A communique to be released at the closing of the session on Thursday is expected to include the term "dual circulation," which refers to an economic strategy of increasing self-reliance and easing dependence on foreign demand. The communique will be aimed at building a domestic demand-led economy to brace for a split or "decoupling" from the U.S. economy.
The Communist Party appears to be gearing up for the Nov. 3 presidential election in the U.S.
Friday, Oct. 23: China's hotel of Communist Party secrets braces for next big event
The Jingxi Hotel, located about 8 km west of Tiananmen, is guarded by soldiers in camouflage fatigues and surrounded by high walls with barbed wire. It may be the most heavily guarded hotel in China.
When I drove past on Wednesday afternoon, there were more police officers than usual, in addition to the soldiers. They must have been guarding someone important. I could not see much, but I did make out gigantic signs hanging at the front entrance. "Long Live the Chinese Communist Party" and "Long Live the People's Republic of China," they read.
The Communist Party will hold the fifth plenary session of its 19th Central Committee at the hotel, starting Monday. It is the party's most important annual meeting, bringing together nearly 200 members of the committee, headed by General Secretary Xi Jinping. Once the session begins, tight security will be in place and only authorized people will be allowed to enter the area.
About 300 meters from the Jingxi Hotel sits the People's Liberation Army's Bayi Building, also known as China's Pentagon. The Central Military Commission, which oversees the PLA, is headquartered there.
Since the hotel, which is operated by the military commission, is practically run by the party, the general public cannot enter without a special reason. It opened for business in 1964 and has hosted numerous important meetings. The most pivotal, perhaps, was the third plenary session of the party's 11th Central Committee in December 1978.
At that meeting, Deng Xiaoping, who became the country's supreme leader, unveiled a "reform and opening-up" policy to rebuild an economy that had been teetering on the brink of collapse due to the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
The meeting marked China's departure from its class struggle and paved the way for rapid economic development.
The hotel has also been the backdrop of a fierce power struggle. In July 2017, Sun Zhengcai, then the top official in Chongqing, was detained on suspicion of disciplinary violations during the National Financial Work Conference.
Sun had been seen as one of the top candidates to succeed Xi as president and head of the party. He was reportedly questioned by investigators in a Jingxi Hotel room and disappeared from the political scene.
Since then, no one else has emerged as a clear candidate to step into Xi's shoes. On the contrary, power is increasingly concentrated in the president's hands, fueling an assumption that he will rule for the long term.
The "Central Committee work rules," released by the party in mid-October, made clear in writing again that Xi is at the "core" of the party system -- in other words, the unrivaled leader.
The upcoming fifth plenary session at the Jingxi Hotel will set long-term goals through 2035.
Will this be part of preparations for Xi to begin a third term at the party's next quinquennial national congress in 2022? Even after the plenary meeting ends on Oct. 29, few details of the behind-closed-doors discussions are likely to come out.
The Jingxi Hotel, with its high walls, holds plenty of Communist Party secrets.
Monday, Oct. 19: Confucius Institutes face pushback toward China's gates
Deshengmen, northern Beijing's "Gate of Virtuous Triumph," was built in the 15th century and designed to be impenetrable. The Ming dynasty structure was also called "the military gate," since the imperial army would march out of it as it deployed to defeat a foreign enemy.
Nearby sits the general headquarters of the Confucius Institutes -- dispatched by China's government around the world to promote Chinese-language education.
In contrast with Deshengmen, the headquarters building is modern. And unlike many other Chinese government offices, it has no heavy security presence to scare people away.
A sign written in Chinese and posted at the entrance says: "We enthusiastically welcome guidance from friends around the world." I found it surprising that it stresses seeking guidance from others, rather than guiding them.
Are the Confucius Institutes taking such a humble attitude because they are under fire from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials?
Pompeo has accused them of being propaganda organs of the Chinese Communist Party, exerting a "malign influence" on American public opinion at universities and elsewhere. In an interview with a U.S. radio station last Thursday, Pompeo said the Donald Trump administration aims to shut down all Confucius Institutes in the country by the end of this year.
Beijing spokesman Zhao Lijian, deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Information Department, lashed out at Pompeo on Friday and hinted at the possibility of countermeasures.
"Out of ideological bias and political expediency, some U.S. politicians, such as Pompeo, deliberately undermined the cultural and educational exchanges and cooperation between China and the United States by discrediting Confucius Institutes and interfering with their normal operations," Zhao said.
The Confucius Institute program was formally launched in November 2004. The headquarters website counts 541 locations in 162 countries and regions.
There is no doubt that China sees the institutes as a major tool to boost its soft power and gain local footholds for spreading Chinese culture.
I have wondered why the government-backed education centers bear the name of Confucius in the first place. Within the Communist Party, the ancient philosopher has long been a controversial figure.
The "Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius Campaign" comes to mind. Mao Zedong launched this movement in the early 1970s -- when the storm of the Cultural Revolution was raging -- against Lin Biao, who is said to have plotted to assassinate Mao, and Confucius.
In Mao's view, Confucius was "a reactionary philosopher of the feudal period" and someone whose legacy should be defeated, along with Lin.
With the introduction of the "reform and opening-up" policy in 1978, however, Confucius came to be seen in a different light. Social stability was crucial for economic development and the morals he preached were convenient for the party.
Years later, with tailwinds blowing at home, the Confucius Institutes became missionaries of Chinese civilization. But they now face strong headwinds overseas. Not only the U.S. but other democracies increasingly look upon them with suspicion.
The location of the headquarters near the "military gate" seemed symbolic, as the rest of the world looks poised to push the institutes back through China's gates.
Friday, Oct. 16: China trumpets crackdown on 'Taiwan's spies'
"Spies from Taiwan" are making headlines in China.
The People's Daily, the main mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, on Thursday ran a commentary titled "A warning to Taiwanese intelligence officials," accusing the self-ruled island of stepping up espionage in pursuit of independence.
It all started when the state-run China Central Television reported on Sunday night that national security authorities had cracked hundreds of espionage cases involving Taiwan and caught many alleged spies in a special initiative called "Thunder 2020."
The program featured a man from Taiwan who was detained in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, in August 2019. He reportedly entered the city after participating in demonstrations in Hong Kong, and secretly took pictures of the People's Armed Police Force that had gathered in preparation for a possible clampdown on protesters.
The man appeared on the program himself, saying he was very sorry. He said it is wrong to use violence against one's homeland, criticizing the demonstrations in Hong Kong.
The narrative seemed to be this: Taiwan's authorities are supporting pro-independence activities in Hong Kong, and pro-independence activists in Taiwan and Hong Kong join hands to cause confusion in mainland China.
China's campaign against Taiwan's supposed spies is aimed at keeping the island's increasingly pro-U.S. president, Tsai Ing-wen, in check.
Chinese President Xi Jinping inspected the People's Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps base in Guangdong on Tuesday. The force, created in 2017, is intended to be the equivalent of the U.S. Marines.
"The PLAN Navy Marine Corps are amphibious elite troops," Xi said in an address. "We need to improve our operational capabilities and build excellent troops that can operate in all regions," he continued, hinting at a landing operation in Taiwan.
On Jan. 1, 1979, right after Deng Xiaoping set out a strategy of "reform and opening up," the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress released an open letter to Taiwan compatriots calling for a peaceful unification. It was a shift from Mao Zedong's policy of uniting with Taiwan by force.
But 40 years later, on Jan. 2, 2019, Xi declared at an anniversary ceremony: "We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means."
The situation surrounding the Taiwan Strait is more tense than ever, as one of two potential flashpoints between the U.S. and China -- the other being the South China Sea.
Back in Beijing, there is a district with restaurants and amusement facilities called Taiwan Street, about 15 km west of Tiananmen Square. It was built when cross-strait relations were much friendlier. Former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan attended the opening event in 2010.
I stopped by on Thursday, but few stores were open amid the coronavirus pandemic.
What caught my eye was a huge picture of the Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng, who is also popular on the mainland. The faded picture exuded a certain sadness -- a reflection, I thought, of the current state of China-Taiwan relations.
Monday, Oct. 12: China wary of Taiwan move to leave 'father of nation' behind
I never imagined that the police would appear when I was about to enter Zhongshan Park, just west of the Tiananmen -- or the Gate of Heavenly Peace -- in Beijing.
On Saturday, I bought a ticket I had reserved the previous day at the park's entrance and proceeded to the security checkpoint, where I was asked to show identification. As soon as I presented my passport, a police officer came over.
"What's your job?" the officer asked. When I replied, "I'm a journalist," he told me to wait. "I will call the official in charge," he said.
Foreign journalists working in China are no strangers to such experiences. But I have never heard of anyone being stopped from entering an ordinary park that is open to the public.
I waited for about 10 minutes before another police officer -- apparently the one in charge -- finally showed up.
"Are foreign journalists not allowed to enter this park?" I asked him.
He replied politely: "It is not that they are not allowed to enter. But since Zhongshan Park belongs to the Tiananmen district, they are required to apply to the management division."
I had never heard of such a rule, but there was no point in arguing. I returned the 3 yuan (45 cent) ticket and gave up.
I can't help but feel that "rules" restricting the activities of foreign journalists have increased insidiously since the coronavirus outbreak began earlier this year.
The reason I wanted to visit the park was that Saturday, Oct. 10, marked the anniversary of an important historical event.
The Wuchang Uprising took place on that date in 1911, triggering the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty.
Sun Yat-sen, who led the revolution, is still revered as "the forerunner of democratic revolution" in China. After his death in 1925, his body was temporarily enshrined in a 15th-century shrine within Zhongshan Park, which to this day plays a central role in commemorations of Sun's achievements.
Yet, the Communist Party never holds commemorative events on Oct. 10. This is because Taiwan -- which China considers part of its territory -- celebrates its National Day on the same date.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Saturday vowed to deepen the self-ruled island's partnerships with countries that share similar values, in order to protect its democracy.
With this pledge, she clearly signaled that Taiwan would move even closer to the U.S. at a time when Washington's relations with Beijing are severely strained.
In Taiwan, there are calls for legal revisions that would remove portraits of Sun, who is dubbed the "Father of China," from public institutions and schools. Sun is widely seen as a common hero for mainland China and Taiwan, and this would be almost like denying his existence.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's government has reacted sharply, accusing Tsai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party of seeking "de-Sinicization."
But perhaps Taiwan's rationale for distancing itself from China should be considered in a cool-headed manner. Why are foreign journalists blocked from entering Zhongshan Park? I feel like the gap between China and other countries over ideas like freedom of speech and freedom of the press is widening.
Friday, Oct. 9: The Chinese 'spy agency' in Mike Pompeo's crosshairs
The eight-day string of holidays to celebrate the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 ended on Thursday. Chinese diplomatic officials likely enjoyed little rest.
They were surely watching as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Japan on Tuesday for a quadrilateral security dialogue, or Quad, meeting with the Japanese, Indian and Australian foreign ministers. He also met with new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and during the visit, repeatedly called for an international coalition against China.
I tried to follow the news in Beijing through Japanese public broadcaster NHK's international service on Tuesday night, but I encountered a common phenomenon.
As soon as Pompeo appeared, the TV screen switched to a test pattern with the message, "No signal, please stand by."
Foreign TV channels in China are strictly censored by local authorities. Until a short while ago, the screen would just go black when something inconvenient for the Chinese Communist Party was shown. Recently, the watchdogs changed their method of blocking content, displaying the "no signal" message instead.
This was apparently to let viewers know that their TVs are not having technical difficulties -- that the program they are watching is the problem.
Pompeo certainly keeps the censors busy.
The secretary of state emphasizes that China was the source of the novel coronavirus pandemic and rejects the Communist Party's one-party rule.
China, in turn, has called him "the common enemy of mankind." But this has not deterred him.
Speaking in the U.S. state of Wisconsin on Sept. 23, Pompeo warned of a danger of Chinese diplomats trying to woo U.S. politicians to expand their country's influence and conduct espionage. "Know that when you are approached by a Chinese diplomat, it is likely not in the spirit of cooperation or friendship," he said in a speech at the state capitol.
Pompeo singled out the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification for criticism as a potential hub of Chinese espionage. He said that the U.S. State Department is now investigating the content of the organization's activities.
The council, formed in 1988, says its official objective is to create a favorable environment for reunifying Taiwan with mainland China. Its current chairman is Wang Yang, who ranks fourth in the Communist Party's hierarchy and serves as chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference -- the country's top political advisory body.
You Quan, the council's executive vice chairman, is said to be close to Chinese President Xi Jinping. He also serves as head of the United Front Work Department, which reports directly to the party's Central Committee.
In China, the term "united front" has a special meaning. It means not hesitating to join hands -- even with anti-Communist forces -- to fight a common enemy. Mao Zedong, Communist China's founding father, advocated this in the 1930s during the war against Japan.
Officials of the United Front Work Department can be considered front-line troops for "united front" work. The department's current main mission is said to be influencing overseas public opinion. The China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification falls under the department's umbrella.
On Thursday, the last day of the holidays, I visited the address listed as the council's headquarters on its website.
The three-story, multi-tenant building was disappointingly small, and was marked with a modest sign. It did not look like the headquarters of a "spy agency" at all. But this only seemed to underscore the secretive, murky nature of the U.S.-China feud.
Monday, Oct. 5: Investigation of former Wang Qishan aide fuels China's rumor mill
About 5 km northwest of Beijing's Tiananmen Square stands a modern building with no sign.
The soldiers guarding the gate give away its identity as an important location for the Chinese Communist Party. But many might be unaware that it houses the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party's top anti-graft body.
Last Friday morning, the office issued a joint statement with the National Supervisory Commission announcing that Dong Hong was under investigation for "serious disciplinary violations."
Dong once served as a vice ministerial-level official on a "central inspection team" -- a special squad that cracks down on misconduct. The announcement that he himself was under investigation came amid China's string of eight National Day holidays.
When I checked Dong's background on Baidu, the search engine returned unexpected results.
Dong's bio said he "accompanied" Wang Qishan each time the current Chinese vice president was appointed to key posts, such as vice governor of Guangdong Province and mayor of Beijing in the late 1990s and 2000s.
After President Xi Jinping rose to power as the party's general secretary in autumn 2012, Wang became head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to spearhead the leader's anti-corruption campaign. Dong, again, joined the commission to support Wang, who also became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee -- the party's top decision-making panel, on which he served until 2017.
Dong was clearly one of Wang's closest aides. But it is unusual for someone's political "closeness" to a certain member of the Politburo Standing Committee to be included in their background information so prominently.
Even after Dong was placed under investigation, his bio was not deleted from Baidu right away. It took several hours before Baidu displayed the message, "Sorry, the page you have requested does not exist."
Dong is not the first close Wang associate to face a probe this year.
Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent entrepreneur who is said to have been a friend of Wang's since junior high school, was sentenced to 18 years in jail on charges such as bribery in late September.
Many believe there is more to the story. The famously outspoken Ren had been detained in March after publishing an article criticizing Xi's response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Wang is known as a close Xi ally. And although he retired from the Politburo Standing Committee at the party's last national congress in 2017 -- having already exceeded the unofficial retirement age of 68 -- he returned to the national limelight as vice president in March 2018.
Xi is said to have strongly urged him to take up the post.
But now Dong and Ren, both of whom relied on Wang's backing, have been swept up in the dragnet. What does this mean?
All eyes are on Wang's moves ahead of the fifth plenary session of the Communist Party's 19th Central Committee, scheduled to get underway on Oct. 26. The word is that discussions will be held on strengthening Xi's authority.
Friday, Oct. 2: China celebrates its past while empowering Xi for the future
It was the biggest crowd I'd seen since the coronavirus outbreak began in late January. On Thursday, the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, Tiananmen Square was packed.
An 18-meter-high basket of flowers and a huge portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty, were positioned in the middle of the square.
Sun's portrait is displayed there only twice a year: Labor Day on May 1 and National Day. On the other hand, the portrait of Mao Zedong, the founding father of modern China, is always looking down on Tiananmen. There is no doubt that Mao is the master of the square, home to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, or the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
On Wednesday morning, the day before National Day, President Xi Jinping visited the square for the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Monument to the People's Heroes. Joining him were six members of the Politburo Standing Committee and Vice President Wang Qishan.
Live coverage on the state-run Chinese Central Television showed Xi walking toward the monument looking confident. Premier Li Keqiang and Li Zhanshu, who serves as chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, followed.
Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and Wang Huning, who ranks fifth within the party, engaged in friendly banter. China may have wanted to show the world that its leaders are united amid rising tensions with the U.S.
Ahead of the holiday, there was a major political development. The party started examining the enactment of "a set of regulations on the work of the Central Committee" at a Politburo meeting on Monday.
What are the "set of regulations" for? The official announcement said: "The enactment of the regulations on the work of the CPC Central Committee is essential to upholding the authority of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core, and its centralized and unified leadership, according to the meeting."
Put simply, the party aims to concentrate more power in Xi's hands.
Xi is set to end his second term as the chief of the party's 90 million members at the next National Congress in autumn 2022.
But few expect him to retire. Speculation is rife that he will create a post of "chairman of the party's Central Committee" and remain the paramount leader. Party chairman is the post Mao held for more than three decades until his death in 1976.
Rumors suggest the study on the regulations is a step toward reviving the post of chairman. The draft of the regulations could be examined at the fifth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee, scheduled for Oct. 26 to Oct. 29.
The Communist Party is steadily strengthening Xi's position at its core.