ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter
Beijing Diary

Connecting the dots of the Hong Kong law and veneration of Xi

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

Copies of "The Governance of China Volume 3," a collection of President Xi Jinping's speeches, are displayed at a bookstore in Beijing on June 30. (Photo by 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.

Wednesday, July 1

Today, July 1, marks the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China. But this is no ordinary year -- Beijing's national security law, which bans dissident activity in Hong Kong, took effect at 11 p.m. last night.

For many, this will be remembered as the moment Hong Kong lost its autonomy.

Yesterday, I drove past the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress passed the law. The committee session had ended, but security was still tight. Signs along the road read: "Do not stop. Do not drop people off."

Tiananmen Square, across the street, was almost empty.

July 1 is also the day the Chinese Communist Party marks the anniversary of its establishment. The first party convention was held in Shanghai 99 years ago. This was the focus of news coverage on the mainland on Tuesday -- not the Hong Kong legislation.

One news topic was the publication of "The Governance of China Volume 3," a collection of President Xi Jinping's speeches. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that the Chinese and English editions of the book had been published simultaneously and were on sale at bookstores.

I went to the Xinhua Bookstore in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district to find a copy. As soon as I entered, a banner caught my eye. "We heartily welcome 'The Governance of China Volume 3' in Chinese and English," it read. Dozens of Xi's books occupied a whole shelf.

The book cost 80 yuan, or about $11. There were few customers in the store, likely due to concerns about a new wave of coronavirus infections in the city. I waited for a while, but I did not see anyone else buy Xi's book. The huge stockpile looked somewhat forlorn.

Turning the cover of the book, I found a photo of Xi dressed in a Mao suit, waving at the top of Tiananmen. It was probably taken during the military parade for the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 2019.

It dawned on me that what we are seeing right now are preparations for the Communist Party's 100th anniversary in July next year. The security legislation for Hong Kong that was passed despite international criticism, and the veneration of Xi, should be viewed from this perspective.

This means that no matter what the world says, China is likely to maintain its hard-line stance.

Friday, June 26: Xi Jinping's man in the Hong Kong liaison office

For all the international attention China's Hong Kong policy receives, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council does not look like much.

The liaison office, which oversees China's two special administrative regions, is located near the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in west Beijing. The structure it shares with the National Bureau of Statistics is nondescript by the standards of China's central government buildings, which tend to warrant descriptors like "gigantic" and "magnificent."

I drove past the building on Thursday evening. The street was almost empty, though it was the first day of the Dragon Boat Festival weekend. A man dressed in plain clothes, who appeared to be an official, was surveying the surroundings.

The National People's Congress Standing Committee will meet from Sunday to Tuesday and is expected to discuss the national security law for Hong Kong. The international community has expressed grave concern over the new legislation, which bans dissident activity in the territory. The man in front of the office must have been there to ensure nobody attempted to start a protest.

The predecessor of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office opened in September 1978, two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping had become the paramount leader of China.

That December, the Communist Party set out its "reform and opening up" strategy, a Deng-led attempt to overcome the economic stagnation that had followed disastrous political campaigns, including the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.

At the time, Deng is not known to have considered taking back control of Hong Kong. The liaison office was created to use Hong Kong's vitality as a capitalist city to support the reform and opening-up policy.

The office's role changed dramatically when Deng shelved unification with Taiwan and prioritized the return of Hong Kong around 1981. It played a key role in arranging the handover from Britain under the "one country, two systems" formula.

After the handover agreement was reached, however, the liaison office's influence steadily weakened. The word "Affairs" was added to its name in 1993. No leading figures were put in charge, as it was simply considered a go-between for the central government and the administration in Hong Kong.

So it was surprising when Xia Baolong, vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was appointed head of the office in February, when China was still reeling from the coronavirus outbreak.

Xia was President Xi Jinping's deputy when he was Communist Party secretary for Zhejiang Province from 2003 to 2007. Xia's appointment thus amounted to a declaration that the central government intended to impose "direct rule" over Hong Kong, ahead of the new security law.

This Sunday, June 28, is also the Communist Party's designated anniversary of the start of the First Opium War in 1840. At the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, near the liaison office, an exhibition tells the history of the conflict in which China lost Hong Kong.

Now, 180 years later, the Chinese government is about to retake direct control of the territory.

Wednesday, June 24: The Bolton book tidbit China wants to keep quiet

Anyone who lives in mainland China is accustomed to seeing their TV suddenly go black when watching overseas broadcasters like CNN or NHK. The authorities supervise all programming by foreign stations, and quickly block anything they deem inconvenient for the Communist Party.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the blackouts have become more frequent.

While I was watching CNN on Tuesday, the screen went dark when they showed footage of U.S. President Donald Trump calling COVID-19 "kung flu" at his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the weekend. The censors also blocked White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany's explanation in the briefing room.

Trump uses the term "kung flu" as a parody of "kung fu," in a racist dig at China. McEnany's clarification turned out to be something Beijing would never accept.

"What the president does do is point to the fact that the origin of the virus is China," she said. "The president never regrets putting the onus back on China -- pointing out that China is responsible for this."

It was a bit surprising, however, to encounter frequent blackouts during an NHK report on the memoir by Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton. I thought the book, released on Tuesday, worked in China's favor. After all, Bolton describes Trump as unfit for the presidency.

The feed cut out when they showed Trump at the U.S.-China summit in June 2019, when he asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to buy more American farm products.

There is something Xi might want to hide: According to Bolton, the Chinese leader said he wanted to work with Trump for another six years, assuming he would be reelected. But Xi's second term as president expires in March 2023.

"Another six years" meant Xi was already counting on an extension.

The Communist Party goes to great lengths to keep any such inconvenient truths away from the public. This daily reality in China is inconceivable in democratic countries that respect freedom of speech and the press. And the blackouts are a reminder of how the new national security law for Hong Kong could ultimately undermine the freedoms the territory has hitherto enjoyed.

Copies of John Bolton's book, "The Room Where It Happened," are displayed at a store in New York on June 23.   © Reuters

Monday, June 22: Beijing's front-line virus hospital wages new high-stakes battle

On Saturday afternoon, the area around Ditan Hospital in a Beijing suburb was deathly silent.

The hospital, which specializes in infectious diseases, has not accepted outpatients since last Thursday. It has been focused on quarantining patients infected with the coronavirus, amid the recent jump in cases.

The hospital has been on the front line since the capital's first COVID-19 patient was taken there in mid-January. It has treated the majority of the city's patients. President Xi Jinping, during an inspection tour of the hospital on Feb. 10, gave the workers a pep talk, vowing, "We will win this battle at any cost."

The person who was supposed to be Beijing's last coronavirus patient was discharged from Ditan on June 8. But only three days later, a man who had shopped at the city's biggest agricultural wholesale market was admitted, ending a 56-day streak of zero infections in the city.

Since then, more than 200 new cases have been detected -- and all are receiving treatment at Ditan.

Ditan Hospital opened in 1946 at a different location in the city center. It built a ward near Ditan Park, after which it is now named, in the 1950s. It rose to fame in 2003, when severe acute respiratory syndrome hit Beijing and it was designated a quarantine facility for SARS patients.

Memories of the SARS days are still fresh. At one point, it was impossible to come within 100 meters of the hospital.

The operation relocated to the suburb in 2008. Based on lessons learned from SARS, the new hospital was equipped with state-of-the-art isolation facilities; the old building is now being converted into a home for seniors.

When I got lost at the west gate of Ditan Park, a local resident quickly pointed me in the direction of the hospital, saying, "It's over there."

To be sure, Ditan Hospital made a major contribution to bringing the first wave of the new coronavirus under control. But Beijing was unable to prevent a virus comeback and is bracing for a full-fledged second wave.

In the past 10 days or so, more than 2 million residents have received polymerase chain reaction tests at the behest of the authorities. If new cases spike, Ditan Hospital alone may not be able to accommodate them. Other hospitals in the city are already locked and loaded.

The stakes are high, and not just for safety reasons.

On Sunday, China's leadership decided to hold a meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on June 28-30. In defiance of the international community's concerns, Xi's government is poised to push a vote on the national security law banning dissident activities in Hong Kong.

The leadership seems to be rushing to enact the controversial law ahead of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain, and the 99th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's establishment -- both on July 1.

Beijing will likely do whatever it takes to stamp out the virus by then. Its reputation depends on success.

Friday, June 19: No test, no ticket amid Beijing's coronavirus screening frenzy

If you try to book a ticket online to enter the National Museum of China, on the east side of Tiananmen Square, you will be asked a question: Did your coronavirus PCR test come out negative?

Unless you check "yes," you cannot proceed with the reservation. One of my Chinese friends looked amazed and said, "I think this is the only museum in the world where PCR testing is a condition for entry."

Since a cluster of new virus cases emerged at Beijing's biggest wholesale food market last weekend, residents have been urged to take polymerase chain reaction tests so frequently that it has started to feel excessive.

Those who travel out of the capital, as well as anyone who had visited the market recently, must get tested.

Cai Qi, the Communist Party's secretary for Beijing -- the top local official -- presided over a meeting on Wednesday to discuss how to handle the situation. This resulted in an order to expand PCR testing capabilities and coverage, and to ensure that the necessary checks were done quickly.

Cai, known as a close aide to President Xi Jinping, could not hide his impatience after a virus cluster broke out on his watch.

Since June 13, approximately 400,000 people -- about 2% of Beijing's population of 21 million -- have been tested. Not surprisingly, the testing sites set up around the city were crowded, as I noted in Wednesday's diary entry.

Local newspapers described the situation as baoman, which means "a sellout," in the sense of a "sellout crowd."

The authorities probably started worrying that if nothing changed, the rush to contain the virus could actually spread it. On Thursday, I visited Tiantan Sports & Activities Center, one of the testing sites. Unlike two days earlier, I did not find people gathering closely together.

A man with a loudspeaker was shouting: "If you have not received a notice informing you that you need a test, don't enter."

This and other sites must have been instructed to limit who gets tested.

Afterward, I drove past the Great Hall of the People just after the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, kicked off a three-day meeting.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported on Thursday that deliberations had begun on the national security law that would ban dissident activities in Hong Kong.

Tiananmen Square, which sprawls between the Great Hall and the National Museum, was empty except for armed police. It looked like it did four months ago, when the virus scare was gripping the city.

Under Xi's leadership, China was supposed to have defeated the virus faster than other countries. If that victory emboldened the government to push for the Hong Kong security law, China's return to a "war footing" is an emergency for the Xi regime after all.

Wednesday, June 17: Beijing's coronavirus second wave puts Xi ally in hot water

On Tuesday afternoon, a long line formed around a sports field in Dongdan, near Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district. There was jostling, and even some quarreling.

"They are lining up for nucleic-acid testing," a young woman walking nearby told me, explaining that the people were there to check if they had the coronavirus.

Beijing is back on a "wartime" footing after a cluster of infections emerged from the Xinfadi wholesale market. The number of confirmed cases since last Thursday has surpassed 100.

Hoping to stop this new wave of infections, the authorities have tracked down about 200,000 people who visited the market after May 30, ordering them to take PCR tests. The field in Dongdan is one of the testing sites.

Yet, having so many people gather in one place seems like a recipe for trouble.

In mid-March, President Xi Jinping declared that China had basically contained the virus when he visited Wuhan, the Hubei Province city where the pandemic started. He convened the delayed National People's Congress in late May, demonstrating the supposed superiority of one-party rule to the world.

But the new cluster in Beijing, home to the Communist Party headquarters, is an embarrassing setback. Cai Qi, party secretary of the Beijing Municipal Committee and a longtime Xi ally, on Sunday replaced executives in the Fengtai district, where the market is located. It seems Cai's impatience has spurred the authorities to hastily arrange the testing.

Cai was Xi's subordinate when the future president ran Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. But he was not even a member or a candidate for the Central Committee when he was put in charge of Beijing in May 2017, causing a stir in the media.

Cai is unpopular among the capital's residents. He was criticized for ordering the removal of all signs on buildings and restaurants to cleanse the city's landscape, and for clearing out dwellings of low-income workers. A Hong Kong newspaper even reported in spring 2018 that he was set to be replaced.

Beijing on Tuesday raised its coronavirus alert to the second-highest level. The return of restrictions, just as the city was restoring a semblance of normalcy after a monthslong lockdown, is unlikely to help Cai's image.

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.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends October 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more