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Beijing Diary

First China, then the world? What a Communist Party song tells us

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

Statues of China's founding father Mao Zedong, former Premier Zhou Enlai and a girl stand across from a large depiction of the Communist Party flag in the village of Tangshang. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

China is locked in a heated diplomatic confrontation with the U.S. At home, President Xi Jinping continues to strengthen his grip on power. All the while, the world is struggling to stop the coronavirus pandemic that started on Chinese soil. Nikkei's bureau chief in China, Tetsushi Takahashi, has been following these stories from the heart of Beijing.

This is his final dispatch before returning to Tokyo.

Friday, March 26

I have lived in Beijing for a total of nearly 10 years, including my latest assignment since 2017. But I only recently discovered a place deep in the mountains within the Chinese capital.

Last weekend, I drove west from the city center for about three hours. The route took me up and down steep hills, until I finally arrived at the village of Tangshang in Beijing's Fangshan district. There was still some snow on the side of the road.

As I got out of the car and started walking, a huge Chinese Communist Party flag -- probably 20 meters tall -- came into view. Standing across from it were statues of modern China's founding father Mao Zedong, former Premier Zhou Enlai and a girl staring at Mao.

Nearby, I found a memorial hall with a strange name: "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China."

Tangshang is best-known for the revolutionary song of the same title, which was composed there. Every Chinese knows the tune, written in the mid-1940s by a young musician who had come to Tangshang along with Communist Party forces. The song's original title is said to have been, "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No China."

It was Mao who added "New."

The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. According to party lore, Mao admonished his daughter Li Na when he heard her signing the song in 1950. "Even when the Communist Party still did not exist, there was already China," he is quoted as saying. "Therefore, 'China' must be changed to 'New China.'"

The statue staring at Mao depicts Li Na.

Mao probably wanted to emphasize that the Communist Party had "changed China." The transformation is undeniably remarkable: What started in 1921 as a small political party with only about 50 members established a new country in less than three decades.

This July, the Communist Party will celebrate its 100th anniversary. It is now the world's largest political group with as many as 92 million members, led by General Secretary and President Xi Jinping.

After changing China, the party now acts as though it wants to change the world.

"China has Chinese-style democracy," Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party's Politburo overseeing diplomacy, told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 18 in Anchorage, Alaska. But what Yang called "Chinese-style democracy" is in fact one-party rule.

Countries that advocate freedom and democracy -- in the traditional sense -- feel they are now fighting for those values and their place in the world. U.S. President Joe Biden, in a news conference on Thursday, vowed to push back.

"China has an overall goal, and I don't criticize them for the goal, but they have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world," Biden said. "That's not going to happen on my watch because the United States are going to continue to grow and expand."

When I visited Tangshang, a sign at the entrance of the memorial hall said it was closed from Jan. 1 until further notice. It is likely undergoing maintenance before the party's 100th anniversary.

I stood, alone, in front of the enormous party flag. I felt uneasy, like I could be swallowed by the "red party." But then it occurred to me that the Communists might be surprised at themselves, even lonely, having grown too large.

I left the village worried about the future of the country and a world increasingly divided between democracy and authoritarianism.

This is my final Beijing Diary entry before I return to Tokyo for reassignment. Thank you for joining me over the past year.

Friday, March 19: China's two top diplomats bring US-Japan baggage to Alaska talks

The first high-level U.S.-China meeting of Joe Biden's presidency kicked off in Anchorage, Alaska, early on Friday, Beijing time.

The meeting is unusual in many ways, including the involvement of both Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as well as veteran diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi. The talks, 6,000 km away from the Chinese capital, mark a rare joint mission for the two men.

Yang, Wang's predecessor, is known in the ministry as a U.S. expert. He is a family friend of the Bushes, which produced two U.S. presidents, and he served as ambassador to the U.S. in the early 2000s. From 2007 to 2013 he was in charge of U.S. relations as foreign minister under President Hu Jintao.

It was likely a testament to his skill for managing ties with America that he continued to appear on the diplomatic scene after he became a state councilor under Xi and was promoted to the Politburo in fall 2017. Yang was the first diplomat to join the 25-member body since former Premier Qian Qichen, who oversaw China's foreign relations from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

Xi would have been counting on Yang to build fruitful ties with the Donald Trump administration. But he may not have lived up to Xi's expectations. His appearances at diplomatic occasions decreased after the trade war with the Trump administration intensified in spring 2018. Some experts say a gulf has widened between Xi and Yang, who is believed to be close to former president Jiang Zemin.

Wang, meanwhile, has been on the career track of Beijing's Japan hands, including a stint as ambassador to Tokyo. Since he became foreign minister in the Xi administration, he has traveled around the globe and made more public appearances than Yang did in the role. It is evident that Xi has strong confidence in Wang.

His place at the table in the Alaska talks could be a sign that his career has momentum. But he was also dealt an unexpected blow in the run-up to the meeting.

The U.S. and Japan singled out China for criticism at their two-plus-two meeting on Wednesday. Tokyo joining the U.S. in going after China is a bad look for Wang, given his close association with Japan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian lashed out at Japan in his regular briefing on Wednesday. "Japan, driven by the selfish aim to check China's revitalization, willingly stoops to acting as a strategic vassal of the United States, going so far as to break faith [and] harm relations with China," Zhao said, perhaps reflecting Wang's frustration.

The Japanese Embassy in Beijing is just 500 meters away from the U.S. Embassy. A stronger U.S.-Japan bond could affect the future of Sino-American relations -- as well as China's two top diplomats.

Monday, March 15: Xi's Inner Mongolia reprimand puts heat on candidate for premier

It was one of the highest-profile meetings during this year's session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

On March 5, the opening day of the week-long legislative session, President Xi Jinping attended a meeting of delegates from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northern China. He instructed the participants to make serious efforts to popularize the "national common language and characters" and stressed the need for ethnic minorities in China to speak Mandarin as well as their own languages.

His remarks were tantamount to telling people in Inner Mongolia, which borders the independent country of Mongolia, not to speak Mongolian in public. Last fall, the autonomous region switched the language used in some elementary and junior high school classes from Mongolian to Mandarin, sparking protests by parents.

Xi's message at the March 5 meeting appeared to be: Resistance will not be tolerated.

As a matter of form, Xi attends the NPC as a delegate chosen to represent Inner Mongolia. It is therefore customary for him to show up at the meeting with his fellow regional delegates. Generally, his statements reflect the Communist Party's key policies and are not necessarily aimed at Inner Mongolia itself. But this year, some of his comments clearly targeted the region directly.

Reprimanding current and former Inner Mongolian officials over corruption in the coal industry, he declared that he would ferret out those involved -- even dating back generations -- and thoroughly punish them.

"I will never fail to make [them] pay for this," he said, according to the People's Daily, a party media mouthpiece. A hush fell over the venue as soon as he said this.

The current Politburo, made up of the Communist Party's 25 most senior officials, includes a man who once served as Inner Mongolia's party secretary, the top local post: Vice Premier Hu Chunhua.

Now there is speculation that Xi's harsh reprimand might have been directed at Hu.

Hu has been considered a front-runner to succeed Premier Li Keqiang, whose second and final five-year term expires in March 2023. He was born to a farming family in Hubei Province in 1963, and was so smart that he passed the entrance exam for the prestigious Peking University at age 16.

Hu, like Li and former President Hu Jintao, rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League, the party's massive youth organization. After graduating from the university, he worked in the Tibet Autonomous Region for about 20 years.

Hu served as Inner Mongolia's top official from 2009 to 2012. I spoke with Hu in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, in 2011. I remember that when I presented my business card, he replied with a smile, "I also used to work as a local newspaper journalist in Tibet."

Will Hu be able to reach the post of premier? Dark clouds are gathering over his political fortunes.

The party's so-called Communist Youth League faction comprises former officials of the organization. It is common knowledge that since Xi became supreme leader in the fall of 2012, the faction has been criticized for being "aristocratic" and "focusing on entertainment." It has been given the cold shoulder in terms of personnel appointments.

Hu now faces an even stronger headwind because of the corruption issue in Inner Mongolia.

On the last day of its session, the congress adopted a revision to the NPC organization law, making it possible to appoint or dismiss vice premiers more flexibly.

Many observers believe that as Xi seeks a third term as top leader at the next party congress in fall 2022, he wants to elevate one of his close aides to vice premier -- a precursor to becoming a candidate for premier.

Xi appears to be progressing with his consolidation of power for an extended reign into the 2030s.

Friday, March 12: Premier Li's briefing: Last hope for a China congress surprise

"Predetermined harmony" might be one way to describe this year's National People's Congress in Beijing. The seven-day legislative session -- often referred to as a "rubber stamp" for Chinese Communist Party policies -- closed on Thursday, after adopting a resolution to overhaul Hong Kong's electoral system.

The adulation of President Xi Jinping was striking. During the closing ceremony, the president's close aide Li Zhanshu, chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, urged colleagues to rally around the party's Central Committee with Comrade Xi at its core. The Great Hall of the People erupted in thunderous applause.

The premier's customary news conference, held just after the closing ceremony every year, is the only occasion during the NPC when something unexpected could happen. The premier fields questions from reporters, including journalists from overseas. There are no similar opportunities to question other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Xi.

At last May's briefing, Premier Li Keqiang said 600 million Chinese make only about 1,000 yuan ($154) a month and cannot even afford to rent a home in a midsize city, stirring controversy.

The Communist Party had vowed to build a "moderately prosperous society" by 2020. But Li's comment all but suggested it was difficult to achieve that goal. Hong Kong media reported that Li was criticized within the party over his remark.

I anxiously waited to hear what Li had to say this year.

He was scheduled to meet the press at 4 p.m. on Thursday. To attend, I had to go to a hotel west of the Great Hall at 7 a.m. and take a coronavirus test. Then I entered a designated room for a six-hour quarantine until the results came back.

Finally, I was allowed to leave the room at 2:30 p.m. and take a shuttle bus to the media center. Like last year, the news conference was held online as a health precaution.

China's state-of-the-art 5G technology must have been used. A crystal-clear image of Li was displayed on big screens with little noticeable time lag. It was as if the premier was right in front of me as he answered questions and gestured.

I had an opportunity to ask about China's target growth rate. "The growth rate of at least 6% for 2021 is not an ambitious target, but [actual growth] could be higher," Li answered politely.

Li ended the 120-minute conference by saying: "Thank you, everyone. I hope we can meet in person next time."

There were no surprises.

From now on, will the premier's news conference be just another completely choreographed event, as praising Xi becomes an NPC ritual? I left the media center with an empty feeling.

Monday, March 8: Who is Xi's answer to Zhou Enlai, Mao's 'Great No. 2'?

At the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on Friday, Premier Li Keqiang spoke unusually quickly as he read out the government's work report.

"On behalf of the State Council, I want to solicit your opinions," Li started out calmly. But his pace sped up toward the end. He might have had a sore throat -- his voice was hoarse and he took frequent sips of water.

Li was probably told not to speak for more than an hour. "Let's keep on trying to achieve the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," Li said, apparently omitting some of his prepared text and hastily wrapping up the report in 60 minutes.

President Xi Jinping was watching Li speak at the podium inside the Great Hall of the People. The premier seemed a bit nervous in front of Xi, who has absolute power.

March 5, the opening day of the congress, happened to be the birthday of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic of China. Zhou, who was born in 1898, served as premier for 27 years until his death in 1976.

Mao Zedong, the founding father of modern China, ousted anyone who tried to threaten his position, but Zhou never disappeared from China's political center stage. This is why he is known as the "Great No. 2."

On Sunday morning, I stopped by a place that has connections with Zhou: China Photo Studio, located on Beijing's Wangfujing Street, east of the Great Hall.

The studio, founded in Shanghai, in 1937, opened the Wangfujing location at Zhou's direction when it relocated to the capital in the mid-1950s. "I heard that the premier casually walked into the store in 1956 and stood in line with his fellow customers to have a photo taken," an old staff member said.

The photo is displayed at the front of the studio. Mao's portrait is placed a little higher and centered, surrounded by pictures of Zhou and former President Liu Shaoqi, who died a miserable death during the Cultural Revolution and was posthumously rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping's government in 1980.

"Chairman Mao's photo alone was taken somewhere else," the staffer added.

Zhou must have been able to keep his position because he did not aim to oust Mao from power. At the same time, Mao must have known that he needed Zhou, who had practical skills and was loved by the general public, to run the gigantic nation. So he kept Zhou by his side until he died.

It seems that the Monument of the People's Heroes, in the center of Tiananmen Square, symbolizes the relationship between the two leaders. The inscription on the front of the monument was handwritten by Mao, while the back features Zhou's writing. Without Zhou, who supported Mao, modern China might have collapsed at some point.

Then I started to wonder, does Xi have a No. 2 like Zhou? For the president, who is clearly striving for a long reign into the 2030s, this might be his weakest point.

Friday, March 5: China's Hong Kong czar puts democrats on notice as congress starts

The annual session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, commenced Friday morning at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Drawing the most attention this year is a review of the election system in Hong Kong, aimed at completely excluding pro-democracy forces from the city's politics.

On Thursday, a key figure in the review process showed up at the hall for the opening ceremony of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, or CPPCC -- the other of China's two key policymaking sessions.

The man is Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council. Xia concurrently serves as vice chairman of the CPPCC, the country's top political advisory body.

CPPCC Chairman Wang Yang's speech at the ceremony emphasized that he would firmly support the principle of "patriots governing Hong Kong." Xia was watching, sitting just behind Wang.

The principle is a slogan advocated by Deng Xiaoping, the late former Chinese supreme leader who secured the return of Hong Kong from the U.K. Xia has turned the words into a pretext for reviewing the election framework in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

In a lecture on Feb. 22, Xia showed his determination to fundamentally change the system. He stressed the need to ensure that "members of the executive, legislative and judicial organs of the HKSAR and chief officials of its major statutory bodies are genuine patriots."

In China, the word "patriot" is synonymous with a person who pledges loyalty to the Communist Party. Xia's review is nothing less than the institutionalization of a mechanism to prevent those who do not support the party from running for office.

Xia is known as a confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping. He served as Zhejiang Province's deputy party secretary under Xi in the mid-2000s, when the future president held the top provincial post. Over the years, he has demonstrated his loyalty to Xi on several occasions.

In Zhejiang, Xia rose through the ranks to become the local party secretary. When he retired from the post in spring 2017, he praised "Comrade Xi Jinping's Thought." It is said that Xia was the first to publicly speak of Xi's eponymous ideology.

At the Communist Party's last national congress in October 2017 -- it rolls around once in five years -- the party's constitution was revised to enshrine "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era."

Ahead of the 2017 party gathering, Xia was seen as a likely candidate to join the Politburo, consisting of the top 25 officials. After this did not happen, he assumed the post of vice CPPCC chairman, but this largely honorary position might not have satisfied him.

The announcement of his appointment as director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in February 2020 came as a surprise to many. Xi probably dared to pick Xia as the top official in charge of Hong Kong policy, despite his lack of connections to the city, for one purpose: thoroughly banishing "non-patriots" who call for democratization and criticize the Communist Party.

Xia established the Hong Kong national security law in June 2020. Now he is reviewing the elections. The final curtain is falling on the "one country, two systems" principle that guarantees a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday night, a spokesperson for the National People's Congress declared that "improving" Hong Kong's electoral system would be placed on the agenda for the current session.

Xia has issued a not-so-subtle warning to pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong: No criticism of Xi and the party will be tolerated.

Monday, March 1: Chairman Mao's late successor makes surprise return to relevance

As I headed south along a road running near Beijing's Zhongnanhai district, the home of the Chinese Communist Party, a large gate came into view.

A sign confirmed it was the gate of Liwangfu, one of the city's important cultural assets. The building is said to be a mansion built by the relatives of emperors between the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Liwangfu is closed to the public. When I peered through a gap in the gate, I could see a group of soldiers lining up.

I stopped there because I had heard that Hua Guofeng, the designated successor of Communist China's founding father Mao Zedong, resided there until he died in 2008 at age 87.

"It is true that he was living in a siheyuan inside," said an elderly resident living nearby, referring to a traditional Chinese residence. "I think his wife is still living there."

Today, few people outside of China remember Hua's name.

Mao supposedly handed the reins of power to Hua in his later years, saying, "With you in charge, my heart is at ease." After Mao's death in September 1976, Hua ordered the arrests of the "Gang of Four " -- leaders of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution -- and became supreme leader as Communist Party chairman.

Hua concentrated power in his own hands while advocating a policy known as the "Two Whatevers": "We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave."

But Hua's glory days did not last long. Deng Xiaoping's political maneuvering sidelined Hua and pushed the country toward "reform and opening-up." Hua lost the power struggle and gradually lost the ability to unify the party behind him.

Ultimately, Hua resigned as chairman in 1981 and vanished from the spotlight.

Feb. 20 of this year, however, brought a surprising twist to Hua's tale: The government held an event in his honor at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, praising his achievements and commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth a few days earlier.

Wang Huning, a Politburo Standing Committee member ranked fifth in the party hierarchy, and other senior officials attended. In a speech, Wang referred to the deceased leader as "comrade Hua Guofeng" and stressed the need to "learn" from "Hua's firm political faith" and "unswerving loyalty to the party."

Has a reevaluation of Hua begun? If that is the case, it could affect perceptions of Deng, who in effect drove Hua from power. There is a possibility that Communist Party history will be rewritten.

Wang oversees the ideology and propaganda division of the Communist Party. He is an adviser to President Xi Jinping, who doubles as the party's general secretary.

Also on Feb. 20, Wang presided over a separate meeting, held to declare the launch of a campaign to study the party's history. Xi himself attended. I cannot help but feel the two events are connected.

It is difficult to find Hua relics around Beijing.

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall or Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, which stands in the center of Tiananmen Square, is a rare example. Hua calligraphed the name of the hall. Mao's embalmed body lies in state inside the magnificent structure built at Hua's instruction.

What does the decision to bring Hua, who inherited the chairman's title from Mao, back into the spotlight mean? My hunch is that a movement toward restoring the party chairman system, abolished by Deng in 1982, is coming into full swing.

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