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Beijing Diary

Lee Teng-hui's death brings back bad memory for China's military

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

At left, Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a ceremony held by the Central Military Commission in Beijing on July 29. At right, Taiwan's former President Lee Teng-hui votes in the first direct presidential election there in 1996. (Source photos by Xinhua/Kyodo and Kyodo)

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.

Friday, July 31

TV footage showed Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a ceremony on Wednesday afternoon held by the Central Military Commission in Beijing, where he promoted a senior officer to general. The president did not look happy.

The Central Military Commission, or CMC, is the top military organ that supervises the People's Liberation Army. In addition to his roles as president and Communist Party secretary-general, Xi also holds the top military post as chairman of the commission.

On Wednesday, Xi promoted Xu Zhongbo, political commissar of the PLA Rocket Force. The president attended the event dressed in a special Mao suit called junbianfu, a type of "casual military attire" that only the commander in chief can wear.

The promotion ceremony is an annual affair, coinciding with the Aug. 1 anniversary of the PLA's establishment.

The Chinese Communist Party launched an armed uprising against the Nationalist Party for the first time in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, on Aug. 1, 1927, six years after the party was formed. The basic nature of the PLA remains unchanged to this day: It is not a national military but a "party military" that reports directly to the Communist Party.

And it is no exaggeration to say that the PLA's biggest mission is to reunify mainland China and Taiwan, where the Nationalists fled in 1949 after losing a civil war.

Yet, more than 70 years after the People's Republic of China was founded, the prospects for reunification remain uncertain at best, and in fact appear to be dimming. Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen is bringing her administration closer to the U.S. amid the escalating confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

Perhaps Xi's grumpy expression at the ceremony reflected dissatisfaction with a situation he cannot change as he desires.

On Thursday night, Taiwan's former President Lee Teng-hui, who paved the way for democratization, died at 97. For the PLA, Lee can be considered an old enemy.

When Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996 at Lee's initiative, the PLA fired missiles into waters around the island and sought to stop its democratization by force. This is remembered as the Taiwan Strait crisis.

In response, the U.S. military sent two aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait in a show of support for the democratic process. The PLA had few options in the face of enormous U.S. military power.

That "humiliation" is considered a key motivator for China's buildup of naval forces, including the construction of an aircraft carrier, in the years since.

On Thursday afternoon, I passed in front of the CMC headquarters, about 5 km west of Tiananmen Square, by car. Known as the "August 1st Building" and also dubbed "China's Pentagon," the imposing structure was completed in 1997, just after the Taiwan Strait standoff.

Whenever Xi visits the building, as he did for Wendesday's ceremony, he wears the junbianfu. What decisions will he make as commander in chief amid rising tensions with the U.S. in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea? The answers will affect the future of the entire world.

Wednesday, July 29: China paints Pompeo as foe but courts American 'friends'

When the Chinese government closed the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on Monday, an elderly man tearfully told reporters in front of the building: "China and America should be friends." The clip has gone viral on Chinese social media.

Anti-American sentiment among Chinese has risen since the U.S. government shut the Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas, last Friday. Nevertheless, the man's plea attracted many "likes" online. The closure of the Chinese Consulate is unacceptable, people feel, but no one wants a fight with the U.S. The old man's tears must have reflected the feelings of many Chinese.

Footage of U.S. Consul General Jim Mullinax saying goodbye to people in Chengdu is also drawing attention. "Chengdu is a second home to me and my family," said Mullinax, who previously studied in the city, in fluent Chinese. "My connection with Chengdu will continue."

His departure was already decided, and the video was taken before notice of the consulate's closure had been given. Still, Chinese state media treated Mullinax as "a good friend."

It is unclear how involved the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department was in disseminating the two clips. But President Xi Jinping's government appears to approve. It has made no move to delete them.

"These U.S. media reports make it clear that Pompeo does not represent the American people," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted on Tuesday. In a hard-hitting speech last Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom Hua quoted pointedly without the customary honorific, said the U.S. must make a clean break with China.

Hua quoted U.S. media reports criticizing the speech to attack the top U.S. diplomat.

It seems that China, which has labeled Pompeo "the common enemy of mankind," is trying to draw a line between him and other Americans. Treating Mullinax in a friendly manner highlights that effort. While pinning blame for the rough patch in relations on Pompeo and his followers, China is offering an olive branch to the American people.

For Beijing, this is also a way of defending itself. If public anger toward the U.S. develops into large-scale anti-American demonstrations, protesters might suddenly turn on their own leaders for any perceived weakness toward Washington.

I drove past the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon. Security was much tighter than during my last visit three months ago. Even in China, where freedom of speech is tightly restricted, what policymakers fear most is the wrath of the people.

Monday, July 27: Retracing Nixon's Great Wall visit as a new US-China wall rises

I visited the Great Wall of China in Badaling, near Beijing, for the first time in three months on Saturday. There was a specific spot I was determined to find.

Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall on Feb. 24, 1972, during his historic trip to China. "We do not want walls of any kind between peoples," he declared. I wanted to confirm exactly where he had made the remarks.

Entry restrictions to prevent coronavirus infections are limiting tourist traffic at the wall to less than half the normal numbers. As I looked for the place where Nixon had stood, using a photograph as a guide, an elderly man spoke to me. "Bricks around here date back to the days when the Great Wall was built," he said.

"Mr. Nixon also came here, didn't he?" I asked.

The man pointed toward a lower area and replied: "He probably didn't go so far as to climb to a high place like this. It's probably somewhere around there."

Then he added, "I removed snow for Nixon."

The man would only give the name Chen. He said he was 21 at the time, and worked for a state company handling building materials.

On the day before Nixon's visit to the Great Wall, Beijing was blanketed with snow. Chen said he was dispatched with instructions to help clear a road leading to the Great Wall.

Badaling is approximately 70 km from central Beijing. According to Chinese media, about 800,000 citizens were mobilized to shovel snow on the orders of then-Premier Zhou Enlai. Many citizens still have vivid memories of the all-night work to greet Nixon.

The president's historic visit, remembered as "the week that changed the world," led to a U.S.-China rapprochement after years of hostile relations.

Chen sounded proud of his contribution. "If Mr. Nixon's China visit had not succeeded, there would have been no normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China," he said.

Thirty years later, in February 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush also visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall and made a point of climbing higher than Nixon. This came across as a symbolic message that even if bilateral ties soured, the U.S. would continue to engage with China.

Eighteen years on, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech last Thursday declaring that his country would part ways with China. "The old paradigm of blind engagement with China has failed," he said. "We must not continue it."

The venue Pompeo chose for the address was none other than the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. The memorial hall is located where Nixon was born and raised.

"It's time for free nations to act," Pompeo said, urging other countries to stand against Beijing.

Is a "new Cold War" between the U.S. and China now inevitable? Contrary to Nixon's hopeful words, a new wall seems set to divide the world.

Wednesday, July 22: Jiang Zemin and the 'Giant Egg'

The National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, located just west of the Great Hall of the People, reopened on Tuesday. It reopened for tours, to be precise -- concerts and theatrical performances have been suspended since Jan. 24, due to the coronavirus, and it remains unclear when they will resume.

Booking a tour is as simple as reserving a place online and buying the 40 yuan ($5.75) ticket at the reception desk. Some may feel the price is steep for only a backstage visit. To others, it might seem cheap. Either way, I quickly signed up.

The theater was designed by Paul Andreu, a French architect. Its innovative domed exterior, with plenty of glass, overwhelms visitors and earned the building the nickname the "Giant Egg."

Completed in the autumn of 2007, it includes an opera house, a concert hall and other facilities, and can accommodate a total of 6,000 people. Before the pandemic, prominent orchestras from around the globe would hold concerts there almost daily.

It was then-President Jiang Zemin -- known for his love of music -- who decided at the end of the 1990s to build the center. At the entrance, you'll find a large inscription of the theater's name in Jiang's own calligraphy. When he wrote it, perhaps he envisioned China leading the world not only economically and militarily but also culturally.

Jiang has reached the age of 93. Where is he now?

After a long interval out of the spotlight, he attended the funeral in 2019 of former Premier Li Peng, who died a year ago today. He paid his respects with the seven current members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including President Xi Jinping.

The committee is the Communist Party's top decision-making body. State-run China Central Television, or CCTV, broadcast footage of Jiang speaking to Li's bereaved relatives at the service. Jiang's appearance there was probably partly aimed at dispelling rumors about his poor health: He walked on his own legs, albeit with two attendants by his side.

Two and a half months later, on Oct. 1, Jiang appeared on the Tiananmen rostrum for a ceremony celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China's foundation.

Once again, Jiang showed the country and the world that he was alive and kicking despite his advanced age. Xi was flanked by Jiang and another former president, Hu Jintao, on the rostrum.

China's current leaders, including Xi, and retired elders, including Jiang, gather every August at the seaside resort of Beidaihe in Hebei Province to discuss important national issues. This is known as the Beidaihe meeting.

The question of whether this year's meeting will go ahead as usual, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has drawn a lot of attention.

Many political pundits think the persistence of the virus will make it difficult to hold the meeting in its normal form. Retired elders may lose a precious opportunity to make their presence felt.

Although I looked for exhibits related to Jiang at the arts center, I found none, except for the inscription at the entrance. What stood out instead was a sign celebrating the 99th anniversary of the Communist Party's establishment, with a plate immortalizing Xi's remarks. Here, as in so many places, preparations for the party's centenary next July are well underway.

Monday, July 20: US weighs travel ban on Chinese Communists but can it spot them?

Members of the Chinese Communist Party and their families -- the elites of Chinese society -- fear they may soon be barred from visiting the U.S.

The New York Times reported last Thursday that President Donald Trump's administration is considering a sweeping ban on arrivals by party members and their relatives. The presidential proclamation, still in draft form, could also authorize the U.S. government to revoke the visas of party members and their kin who are already in the country, leading to their expulsion, the report added.

The news prompted one Communist Party member and Beijing resident in his 50s to call the U.S. Embassy's visa application service center. "Is it true that a member of the Communist Party will not be able to get a visa?" he asked. The operator replied in a businesslike tone: "First you have to register your name and passport number. We can't answer your questions without registration."

That the operator did not deny the report came as a shock to the party member, who was thinking of traveling to the U.S. in the future.

If the executive order takes effect, his offspring would be affected as well. His children may lose the option to study in the U.S. Some students who are already there might be forced to return to China. It is well-known that many such students are the sons and daughters of Communist Party members.

As of the end of last year, the party had about 92 million members. If their families are included, roughly 300 million Chinese are likely to be affected by the executive order -- almost equal to the total population of the U.S.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Friday that if the report is true, the U.S. will turn Chinese citizens, who make up a fifth of the world's population, against it.

Then I wondered: How will the U.S. distinguish members of the party and their families from other Chinese citizens?

I asked a party member I know if there is any proof of his membership. "If I had to choose anything, it would be my party member pin," he replied, showing it off. I've seen many people wearing the pins at government offices and museums.

But another member I know said he lost his pin. I asked him if it was a problem to misplace such an important item, but his answer was surprisingly nonchalant. "I can buy it online if I need it," he said.

Indeed, the pins are available on Alibaba Group Holding's shopping site. They go for 2.3 yuan (33 cents) apiece and 210 yuan for 100. There is even a video promoting them, promising, "They don't lose color even after long use."

The U.S. would have no choice but to ask Chinese visa applicants if they are party members. Anyone who wants a visa would have to swear to the U.S. that they have no associations with the party.

In any case, the Trump administration's target appears to be shifting from China to the Communist Party.

Friday, July 17: Voice of China's reformists becomes mouthpiece of 'Xiism'

"The Chinese Communist Party's instructions are the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics." That was the front-page headline of the People's Daily newspaper, the main mouthpiece of the party, on Thursday. The paper quoted President Xi Jinping's article for the latest edition of Qiushi, a journal of party theory.

Xi called for a further concentration of power in typical fashion: "The party will instruct everything" from politics and the military to the civilian and academic sectors. "Our party must mature even further and become stronger, and step up our combat power."

The bimonthly Qiushi has carried Xi's articles on its front page for 39 consecutive issues over the last 18 months.

Xi's prolific contributions to the journal seem unusual for a top leader. Former President Hu Jintao contributed articles 16 times during his five-year second term.

It is as if the publication has transformed into a journal of "Xiism" since 2018.

The Red Flag journal, the predecessor of Qiushi, was first published in 1958. With its title handwritten by founding father Mao Zedong, it started out as a magazine that conveys a "correct interpretation" of Marxism.

During the Cultural Revolution, the journal was included among the country's most prestigious "two newspapers and one magazine," alongside the People's Daily and the People's Liberation Army Daily.

After paramount leader Deng Xiaoping hammered out his "reform and opening up" policy in 1978, Red Flag survived as the voice of conservatives who supported Mao's revolutionary strategy.

But in 1988, then General Secretary Zhao Ziyang embarked on a reform of the journal. He effectively forced Red Flag to cease publication and launched Qiushi in its place.

The name "Qiushi" comes from a Chinese term for "practical search for the truth" -- an expression often used by Deng and other reformists when they criticized those who insisted that Mao's instructions were absolute. The journal's title was handwritten by Deng, and Qiushi became a vehicle for reformist views.

In its first edition, in July 1988, Qiushi carried an article headlined "An immediate problem facing China's political system," written by a Zhao aide. Even after Zhao fell from power following the Tiananmen Square incident, the journal maintained its reformist tone.

Not anymore. The Communist Party has called the media its "throat and tongue" -- another way of saying "mouthpiece." It seems that Xi wants to restore the "two newspapers and one magazine" to their former status.

The publisher of Qiushi is located in a quiet neighborhood just northeast of the Forbidden City, not far from Zhao's old residence. Zhao died in January 2005. I wonder what he would say about today's Qiushi.

Wednesday, July 15: Liu Xiaobo's death and Hong Kong's national security law

Three years have passed since Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo died in prison on July 13, 2017. It will also be 10 years in December since he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while incarcerated.

Against Liu's wishes, however, the Chinese government, led by President Xi Jinping, went ahead with the enactment of national security legislation for Hong Kong in an effort to demonstrate the supremacy of China's model of one-party rule over democracy.

On the evening of Oct. 8, 2010, I was waiting for the announcement of the winner of that year's Nobel Peace Prize with nearly 100 reporters from other foreign media in front of the apartment building in Beijing where Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobao's wife, was living.

When someone shouted "He did it!," people cheered and applauded. I remember a Chinese man in his 50s saying tearfully, "Liu Xiaobo is China's hope." Although Liu Xia did not come out, her agent read out a message that said: "The prize does not belong to Liu Xiaobo alone. It also belongs to all the people who supported 'Charter 08.'"

It was hoped that the Nobel Prize would provide China with an opportunity to listen to the voices of the international community and change, if only a little. But China did not change. Rather, it further tightened its grip.

Liu Xiaobo was among the intellectuals who went on a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square just before the People's Liberation Army crushed the pro-democracy movement on June 4, 1989. He is said to have urged students and other protesters to leave the square to avoid bloodshed.

Liu continued to command respect at home and abroad because he chose to stay in China and remained critical of the Communist Party, although he had the chance to flee abroad. In 2008, he and other pro-democracy activists drafted "Charter 08," which calls for the abolition of the Communist Party's one-party rule and judicial independence.

He was detained at the end of that year and sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment for subversion in February 2010. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in October that year.

When Liu was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in prison and died at age 61, many Hong Kongers mourned his death. Looking back, many must have seen their futures in that of Liu. Their anxieties materialized when the national security law took effect in late June.

Liu thought that China's future lies in education. He talked about the importance of democracy as a lecturer at Beijing Normal University in the mid-1980s, inspiring many students to join the pro-democracy movement. Liu's ideals have been handed down to democracy activists in Hong Kong.

I stopped by Beijing Normal University on Monday. I could not enter the campus due to measures to contain the novel coronavirus, and the campus was stone silent. I wish I could ask Liu what he thinks of the current situation in Hong Kong.

Monday, July 13: China-North Korea 'blood alliance' comes up for renewal

Saturday was an important anniversary for China and North Korea.

On July 11, 1961, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung signed the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Beijing.

This established a de facto military alliance, as China is obligated to come to North Korea's aid if it is attacked, and vice versa.

In October 1950, Mao Zedong, the founding father of the Communist-ruled People's Republic of China, decided to join the Korean War at Kim's urging.

Mao sent nearly 3 million "volunteer soldiers" to the Korean Peninsula to fight on the North's side. Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 of them died in the 1950-1953 hostilities.

Among the Chinese war dead was Mao's eldest son, Mao Anying, who was 28. His death in a U.S. bombing raid is a symbol of the "alliance cemented in blood," as the China-North Korea bond is known.

Kim Il Sung's successors, Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un, have visited Mao Anying's grave in North Korea at important moments in the relationship. It has become North Korea's ritual for showing gratitude for Chinese support.

Mao Anying was born in Changsha, Hunan Province, in 1922 to Yang Kaihui, Mao Zedong's second wife.

When the boy was 8 years old, his mother was executed by the Nationalist Party. He studied in the Soviet Union for nearly 10 years, starting in the second half of the 1930s.

Mao Anying volunteered to join the Chinese army in the Korean War because Gen. Peng Dehuai, the supreme commander and later China's defense minister, needed a Russian-language interpreter. Shortly before going off to war, Mao Anying worked as a senior official at an equipment factory in Beijing.

Records show that the factory employees -- including Mao Anying -- used the Confucius Temple on Guozijian Street as lodgings. The street was home to the Guozijian, the highest educational institution in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

On July 11, the anniversary of the 1961 treaty, I visited Guozijian Street. I asked an official in front of the temple, "Did Mao Anying live here?" But the official only replied, "I don't know anything about it."

Indeed, many young Chinese are not familiar with this history.

The 1961 treaty that guarantees the "blood alliance" comes up for renewal every 20 years -- meaning the next renewal is due on July 11, 2021.

North Korea, which is pushing ahead with its nuclear and missile development, is taking an increasingly confrontational approach toward the U.S. If the U.S. launches an armed attack on the North, China would have to protect the reclusive state under the terms of the deal.

So for China, maintaining the treaty carries the risk of becoming embroiled in a military contingency on the Korean Peninsula, regardless of its own intentions.

On the other hand, China can use its "blood alliance" with the North as a warning to the U.S. amid tensions with the Donald Trump administration. This holds significant strategic value for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Kim Jong Un, for his part, likely wants to keep the alliance intact. His last reported visit to Mao Anying's grave was on July 27, 2018, the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. He may pay his respects there again soon.

Friday, July 10: Premier Li sends message with candid remarks and muddy shoes

Judging from Premier Li Keqiang's recent comments, I have a feeling that China's recovery from the coronavirus crisis may not be as steady as hoped.

"The factories I saw on the way were not operating," Li said on Monday when he visited a company in the southwestern province of Guizhou. "I want you to beef up production at these factories and hire more migrant workers in the region."

Li's statement that the factories were halted -- acknowledging hardships and expressing concern about the economic situation -- marks a stark contrast with the Communist Party's typical stance that everything is fine thanks to the leadership.

The premier also spoke plainly at a news conference held in conjunction with the National People's Congress on May 28. He revealed that 600 million people in China earn only 1,000 yuan ($142) a month, and that many residents of midsize cities cannot afford to rent a home.

Li's revelation might have upset President Xi Jinping, because the Communist Party has set a goal of achieving a "reasonably affluent society" by 2020. If 600 million people in urban areas cannot afford rent, it is difficult to claim success.

At the same news conference, Li hinted that the government would provide support for street vendors as part of the economic recovery effort.

The authorities had clamped down on merchants selling food and goods on the streets, saying they were detrimental to the urban environment and landscape. Li's remarks sounded like a policy reversal.

Enterprising vendors were quick to jump at the opportunity, and most ordinary citizens seemed pleased with their return. Soon after Li's appearance, one vendor started selling a Chinese snack similar to Japanese okonomiyaki -- seasoned pancakes containing vegetables, meat and seafood -- next to my apartment building in central Beijing. I thought that street stalls -- a symbol of the bustling Beijing of the past -- were making a comeback.

But they didn't last.

The Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party's Beijing Municipal Committee, on June 7 published a commentary piece saying street stalls are "unhygienic and uncivilized," and not suitable for the capital. The stall next to my apartment disappeared immediately after that.

I still come across stalls selling fruit or goods in underground passages and other locations, but they are all small. This way, the vendors can quickly run away if the authorities come by.

Quite a few people in the government seem displeased with Li's frankness about the economy. The row over street stalls in Beijing may be a reflection of this.

On Monday, the premier also spent time with victims of flooding in a Guizhou village. Footage of Li touring the flood zone, with his leather shoes covered in mud, has gone viral on Chinese social media. He is building an image as a politician with a common touch.

Wednesday, July 8: China's leaders of tomorrow take the 'gaokao' exams

China's national college entrance examinations, known as the gaokao, started across the country on Tuesday. The three- to four-day tests are also known as the "imperial exams of modern times," a reference to the civil service exam system in Imperial China, which lasted for about 1,300 years through the end of the Qing dynasty in 1905.

On Tuesday morning, the first day of the gaokao, I stopped by Beijing No. 35 High School, one of the exam sites in the capital. I saw parents and guardians cheering on the test takers by the front gate.

"Relax. I don't mind whatever the result may be," one mother assured her daughter. "Mother, you don't have to wait here," the student in a tracksuit replied before heading in, looking tense.

The gaokao exams usually take place in June but were postponed by a month due to the coronavirus pandemic. Students have to go through temperature checks at the entrance, where medical workers in white coats wait just in case.

To avoid close contact, the number of test takers per classroom is limited to 20 -- 10 fewer than usual.

The gaokao exams, which started in the 1950s, are a symbol of China's intensely competitive society. The results determine where the students can attend university and, ultimately, the course of their lives.

This year, 10.71 million high school students are taking the tests, up by about 400,000 from last year, according to the Ministry of Education.

Beijing No. 35 High School is one of the biggest venues, out of 400,000 locations nationwide. It is also the alma mater of Vice President Wang Qishan, a close aide to President Xi Jinping and a key player in Chinese politics.

Wang, who enrolled in Northwest University's history department in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, in 1973, did not take the gaokao. They were suspended for nearly a decade from 1966, as the Cultural Revolution plunged the country into chaos.

Wang was sent to a poor village in Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, for the "reeducation of educated youth" and spent nearly two years there. Xi, who is five years younger than Wang, was sent to a nearby village. In later years, based on evaluations of their time in the villages, Wang was allowed to enter Northwest while Xi was able to attend Tsinghua University.

In 1977, after the Cultural Revolution, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping decided to resume the gaokao. He must have realized the importance of nurturing talent to realize the country's "reform and opening up" policy, which was set to start the following year. Premier Li Keqiang took the gaokao and entered Peking University.

It has been more than 40 years since the gaokao resumed, and many of those who took the exams are now leaders in Chinese society. China's education system, which revolves around the gaokao, cannot be underestimated.

Monday, July 6: In search of Uighur cuisine and a lost community

The national security law China imposed on Hong Kong on June 30, despite an international outcry, bans the use of "Hong Kong independence" and similar slogans. People can also be arrested merely for carrying leaflets that call for the independence of Taiwan, the Tibet Autonomous Region or the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Doing so is considered promoting secession, which is punishable under the law with a maximum sentence of life in prison -- along with other crimes like subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

I note this because Sunday, July 5, marked the 11th anniversary of the "Urumqi riots" in the capital of Xinjiang. During the riots in the northwestern region, Han Chinese and mostly Muslim Uighurs clashed, resulting in as many as 200 deaths.

There are still traces of the unrest. Many Uighurs have been sent to "reeducation facilities" and remain under strict surveillance by the authorities.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region's Beijing office is located about 10 km northwest of Tiananmen Square. I stopped by at noon on Saturday, having been informed by a friend that I would be able to "eat the most delicious Xinjiang cuisine in Beijing" at the restaurant there.

From outside, the building looks like a palace. This is a sign of the great importance the Chinese Communist Party attaches to Xinjiang. I tried to enter the compound but found the front gate was locked.

"Operations [at the restaurant] have been suspended since January due to the novel coronavirus," a clerk at the entrance told me. "Although it was scheduled to reopen from June, the reopening was postponed as the number of virus cases rose again."

A man who looked to be in his 40s rode up on a bicycle. "Is it really not open?" he asked. "I went out of my way to come to eat naan here."

He looked disappointed as he began to pedal home.

It was in the mid-18th century that the Uighurs fell under the sway of the Qing dynasty. After the dynasty collapsed in 1912, they declared independence in 1933 and again in 1944. But each time their self-determination was short-lived.

The autonomous region was inaugurated in 1955 under the Communist government, following the foundation of "a new China" -- the People's Republic of China -- in 1949.

At the time, Han Chinese residents accounted for about 10% of the region's population. The percentage has now passed 40%. There is deep-rooted resentment among the Uighurs, who feel deprived of wealth by the Han Chinese latecomers.

The 2009 riots were an outburst of such pent-up frustration and anger.

There is a district called Weigongcun near the autonomous region's office in Beijing. Uighur migrant workers settled there, starting in the mid-1980s. The streets were once lined with small eateries serving Xinjiang cuisine.

But the landscape of the community has changed almost completely. The area was redeveloped beginning in the 2000s, with condominiums sprouting up. Where did the Uighurs who had lived there go?

Come to think of it, I rarely see Uighurs in other parts of Beijing nowadays. I fear the establishment of the Hong Kong security law will only further diminish their freedom.

Friday, July 3: What would Zhu Rongji say about the Hong Kong security law?

I came across an intriguing message online recently. "Mr. Zhu Rongji is angry," it said.

The message did not explain why the former premier would be upset, and of course, there is no way to immediately verify whether it is true. But judging from the context, the poster seemed to be suggesting that Zhu is fuming over the new national security law imposed on Hong Kong.

Zhu, who served as China's premier for five years from 1998, visited Hong Kong in November 2002, four months before his retirement. During the visit, he delivered a speech reassuring local residents about the territory's future.

He said that if something went wrong in Hong Kong, it would be the responsibility of not only Hong Kongers but also the Chinese government. If the city were to be crushed under China's rule, following the handover from the U.K., government officials would inevitably be called "criminals" of the Chinese nation, he added.

Whoever posted the message likely meant that the security law has now deprived Hong Kong of its "high degree of autonomy," and that Beijing, with the law, is indeed crushing Hong Kong.

Earlier in his career, Zhu caught the eye of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who spearheaded China's "reform and opening up." After serving as Shanghai's top official, Zhu rose to vice premier in 1991 and came to be known as the country's "economic czar."

In 1993, when China was hit by runaway inflation, Zhu replaced the governor of the People's Bank of China, taking control of the central bank himself. He reined in prices with monetary tightening and was promoted to premier in recognition of his finesse.

As premier, Zhu pushed reforms of state-owned companies -- no easy task, considering deep-rooted vested interests and corruption. His fierce determination is talked about to this day. Famously, he said: "Prepare for me 100 coffins, 99 of them for corrupt officials and the last one for myself."

Zhu is seen as a champion of the market economy, but he emerged from the State Planning Commission, a command center for the planned economy and the predecessor of the current National Development and Reform Commission. In 1952, when China adopted a socialist line at the behest of founding father Mao Zedong, Zhu joined the just-inaugurated commission and helped draw up economic blueprints.

For more than 20 years, he lived in a collective housing district near the government office.

Precisely because he was at the center of China's planned economy, Zhu likely recognized its limits earlier than many others. When the reform and opening-up policy was introduced, he put himself at the forefront of the mission and sowed the seeds of the market economy.

For Zhu, Deng was a mentor. And Hong Kong -- the return of which was arranged by Deng -- was a gateway to studying capitalism.

Zhu turns 92 this year. He has not spoken publicly for nearly a decade. What does he think about the Hong Kong security law introduced under President Xi Jinping? I would relish a chance to ask him directly.

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.

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