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Beijing Diary

Revisiting Deng Xiaoping's tour that saved China's Communist Party

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

Deng Xiaoping walks in Shenzhen during his historic "southern tour" in January 1992.   © AFP/Jiji

China is locked in a heated diplomatic confrontation with the U.S. -- one that may not end with the arrival of a new White House occupant. 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, is following these world-shaping stories from the heart of Beijing.

Monday, Jan. 18

An old Chinese-style neighborhood known as a hutong sprawls just north of Beijing's Jingshan Park, adjacent to the Forbidden City where emperors once lived.

On Jan. 17, 1992, a car with a police escort left a famous residence there at the end of a tangled alley. In the vehicle was former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who was 87 years old at the time.

As the Chinese magazine Nan Feng Chuang tells it, the motorcade first went south and then turned left on Chang'an Avenue, a major thoroughfare running east-west in front of the Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

When you turn onto the avenue, Beijing Hotel quickly comes into view. In May 1984, Deng had calligraphed the name of the city's leading Western-style hotel. He had been at the height of his power, as the "reform and opening-up" he initiated in 1978 had taken off.

If he looked out the window from his car in 1992, Deng would have seen the hotel's name in his handwriting as the motorcade headed to Beijing Railway Station. Upon arrival, he and his family quickly boarded a special train.

The next morning, the train pulled into Wuchang Railway Station in Wuhan, Hubei Province. The moment he disembarked, Deng warned senior local officials greeting him on the platform that if China stopped reform and opening-up, only "the path to death" would be left.

This was the beginning of Deng's famous "southern tour," which changed the course of Communist Party history.

Back then, the reform drive was facing harsh criticism after the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989 -- the military suppression of pro-democracy student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Conservative forces calling for a return to a centrally planned economy were quickly regaining ground.

Alarmed at the prospect of his signature policy falling through, Deng journeyed to southern China -- including Shenzhen and Zhuhai in Guangdong Province as well as Wuhan -- to make the case for transitioning to a market economy.

During the tour, Deng stressed the need not only to continue reforms but to accelerate them. Proceeding slowly, he argued, was tantamount to stopping or even moving backward. The southern tour lasted for a month until Feb. 21, 1992.

No one could ignore orders from the charismatic Deng.

The Communist Party adopted a policy of seeking a "socialist market economy" at its national congress that fall. This meant a full-scale transition to a market economy.

China had been mired in the doldrums since the crackdown, but the economy sprang back to life quickly under the new policy. The country went on to average over 10% growth per annum and joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Without Deng's southern tour, China likely would have followed a different path. Arguably, the economy might have collapsed and the Communist Party's rule could have come to an end.

Through reform and opening-up, Deng brought the confusion caused by the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution under control. Then, through his southern tour, he saved the Communist Party itself.

China has since become a global power seeking to catch and overtake the U.S.

On Jan. 18, 29 years after Deng's trip to the south began, the National Bureau of Statistics announced that the country's gross domestic product grew 2.3% in real terms in 2020. While much of the world remains trapped in the coronavirus crisis, China has swiftly returned to positive growth and is proceeding toward normalization.

President Xi Jinping doubles as general secretary of the Communist Party. And the party's rule under Xi appears rock solid. By and large, citizens' livelihoods have improved to the point where they cannot be compared to the Deng era.

Yet at the same time, China's clampdown on free speech has only intensified. The space for political freedom today is far narrower than it was in the early days of reform and opening-up.

Is this the China that Deng envisioned? One can only guess.

Friday, Jan. 15: Xi, Starbucks and a cup of Joe for US-China relations

In a letter dated Jan. 6 -- the same day supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington -- Chinese President Xi Jinping reached out to a prominent American who had once considered running against Trump.

Xi wrote to Howard Schultz, chairman emeritus of U.S. coffee chain Starbucks, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported on Thursday.

"China has embarked on a new journey of comprehensively building a modern socialist country, which will provide a broader space for companies from all over the world, including Starbucks and other American companies, to develop in China," Xi reportedly wrote.

At one point, Schultz had said he was "seriously thinking" of seeking the presidency as a "centrist independent" in 2020. But he decided not to run because he feared he would split the Democrats' vote, helping Trump win.

Xi, according to Xinhua, was responding to a letter from Schultz in which he congratulated China on its advances and expressed his respect for the Chinese people and culture.

"Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China," Xi stressed, "the 1.4 billion Chinese people have made long-term and arduous efforts to build a moderately prosperous society in all respects and pursue socialist modernization."

Starbucks is one of the best-known American brands in China. The company opened its first cafe in Beijing in January 1999. Now it has more than 4,700 locations in about 180 Chinese cities.

The journey has not always been smooth. In 2007, Starbucks closed its coffeehouse inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, after criticism that it was tarnishing a historical site. Nevertheless, the company has built an overwhelming presence in the Chinese market, driven by young admirers of American culture.

For Starbucks, China has become indispensable. Schultz's letter to Xi must have had something to do with Trump's defeat after years of tensions with Beijing. Xi, likewise, appears keen to use Trump's exit to restore the U.S.-China relationship.

Xi wrote that he hopes the coffee company will actively promote economic and trade cooperation, along with bilateral relations in general.

Exactly a year ago, on Jan. 15, 2020, the U.S. and China signed their "Phase One" trade deal. Trump and his team clearly hoped this breakthrough would help him secure reelection in November.

But COVID-19 changed everything. And early 2021 brought the U.S. Capitol insurrection and a second impeachment for Trump in his final days in office.

Many American companies will say good riddance to the Trump era and his approach to China. A new honeymoon between Xi's China and Starbucks seems to have begun even before Joe Biden is sworn in.

Friday, Jan. 8: US Capitol raiders give China a New Year's gift

I turned on my TV at home in Beijing on Thursday morning and found incredible footage on CNN.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump had stormed the Capitol in Washington. White smoke -- I wondered if it was tear gas -- was billowing.

State-run China Central Television was showing similar scenes, with a subtitle: "American democracy has been destroyed."

Images of a symbol of American democracy attacked by its own people are useful for the Chinese Communist Party to tout the supremacy of its one-party rule.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the party-affiliated Global Times, on Thursday posted the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times on Twitter, saying: "They are mobs, truly. But if Washington D.C. is the capital city of a developing country, the American media outlets will definitely give the Capitol riots a name: Washington Spring."

This was a reference to the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa a decade ago, collectively dubbed the "Arab Spring." U.S. media praised those protesters but labeled the Trump supporters "mobs," Hu was saying.

The firebrand editor was suggesting there is a double standard, but of course, the nature of the Arab Spring, which yearned for free and fair elections, and the Capitol riots, which sought to reject a democratically held election, cannot be more far apart.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday made a similar comparison to coverage of the protesters who occupied the Legislative Council in Hong Kong in July 2019.

"If you still remember how some U.S. officials, lawmakers and media described what's happened in Hong Kong, you can compare that with the words they've used to describe the scenes in Capitol Hill," Hua said. "Now compare that with what the Hong Kong violent protesters were called, like 'a beautiful sight' ... and 'democratic heroes.' They said that 'American people stand with them.' What's the reason for such a stark difference in the choice of words?"

On Wednesday morning, before the U.S. Capitol infiltration, Hong Kong police arrested 53 former lawmakers and democracy proponents on suspicion of violating the new national security law. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take a tougher stance on human rights issues. The Chinese government must be trying to completely neutralize Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers and activists before he takes office.

Under ordinary circumstances, the U.S., a leader of the "free world," would be one of China's strongest and loudest critics. But the U.S. is in no position to play that role, and China would no doubt insist it is simply bringing the "mobs" who stormed the Legislative Council in Hong Kong to justice.

On Thursday afternoon, I stopped by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government's Beijing office, north of Zhongnanhai. The office is right next to a tourist area surrounding Houhai Lake, but there were few pedestrians due to strict COVID-19 measures and temperatures below minus 10 C.

The Chinese flag and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's flag were flying in strong winds, but just as I had observed last May, China's flag seemed to be fluttering with more energy. The sluggish Hong Kong flag seemed to symbolize the city's democracy activists, who are increasingly isolated and unable to count on the U.S. for support.

Monday, Jan. 4: Inside Xi Jinping's office: family photos and red phones

Every New Year's Eve, Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the nation from his office in Zhongnanhai, Beijing's political nerve center.

"We overcame the impact of the pandemic, and made great achievements in coordinating prevention and control, and in economic and social development," he said this time, praising his own handling of COVID-19.

Indeed, having largely contained the coronavirus, China stands out as the only major economy achieving positive growth since the April-June quarter of 2020. "China's gross domestic product in 2020 is expected to step up to a new level of 100 trillion yuan ($15.3 trillion)," Xi said.

For ordinary citizens, state-run China Central Television's annual broadcast of the New Year's speech offers a rare peek into the supreme leader's office.

Xi sits at a large desk, in front of a Chinese flag and a painting of the Great Wall. The painting is flanked by bookshelves with numerous framed photographs. Over the past few years, explaining the photos has become something of a Chinese media tradition.

CCTV counted 21 pictures this year. Many were family snapshots -- Xi posing with his wife, Peng Liyuan, or riding a bike with his daughter on the back. They were likely displayed to promote Xi as a family man.

A close look at the footage also reveals two red phones on his desk. Known as "red machines" within the party, these are exclusive lines with four-digit numbers. Apparently, only members of the Politburo and senior party officials in ministerial posts or higher can call the president on these phones. Xi must use them to give direct instructions.

Back when the coronavirus hit the city of Wuhan in February and March 2020, I remember CCTV repeatedly stressed that "General Secretary Xi Jinping himself directs and takes action." I wonder if Xi was constantly barking orders into the red phones.

Thorough epidemic controls are still in place in Beijing. Whenever an infection is found, all close contacts are placed in quarantine immediately.

On Saturday morning, I stopped by a hotel on the outskirts of the city, where an infected individual was found late last year. The area was blocked by a green wall and nearby restaurants were closed. It was like a ghost town.

Less than a year ago, such scenes were common in Beijing itself. Any significant resurgence of the virus could ruin the Chinese Communist Party's 100th anniversary celebrations, scheduled for July.

2021 is shaping up to be another restless year for Xi.

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