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.
Friday, Dec. 25
Thursday morning’s news came as a shock to many in Beijing: Chinese authorities had launched an anti-monopoly investigation against e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding.
The State Administration for Market Regulation said it is investigating alleged Alibaba business practices — such as requiring vendors to exclusively list their products on its platforms — which are deemed violations of the anti-monopoly law.
Alibaba dominates more than half of China’s e-commerce market. There have been rumors that it forces sellers to choose between Alibaba and other platforms, using its superior bargaining position. But the new scrutiny is only part of the conglomerate’s troubles.
Also on Thursday, the People’s Bank of China — the central bank — announced it will start supervising Alibaba’s financial unit Ant Group with the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission and others. Ant, of course, was forced to postpone a planned initial public offering in Shanghai and Hong Kong in November. The authorities halted the $35 billion listing, which was set to be the world’s largest ever, at the last minute.
The stoppage was widely considered a stern response to a comment Alibaba founder Jack Ma had made at a financial forum in Shanghai in mid-October. “Good innovations are not afraid of supervision, but they do fear outdated supervision,” Ma said.
This was seen as a challenge to the Communist Party’s oversight, prompting President Xi Jinping’s government to swiftly block the IPO. Ma has not been seen in public since, fueling speculation that he himself is under investigation.
A researcher at a Chinese government-affiliated think tank explained the clampdown on Alibaba this way: “Ant was like a loan shark. If the authorities did nothing about Ma, who led Ant, the public could rise up against the government.”
Ma, a charismatic entrepreneur who many see as the embodiment of the Chinese dream, does enjoy broad popularity. But his empire has grown so large that some observers say average Chinese have begun to see him and his enormous wealth as out of their league. The government, perhaps keen to tap into this shifting public opinion, is going after Alibaba.
On Thursday afternoon, I stopped by Alibaba’s Beijing headquarters, which is located on the way to Beijing Capital International Airport. The probe by the State Administration for Market Regulation may be targeting mainly the other head office in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. I saw only a few people coming and going.
Alibaba plans to relocate its Beijing headquarters to the nearly complete Citic building in the Guomao business district. The 528-meter building, constructed by state-owned conglomerate Citic, is the tallest in the city.
On Thursday night, I walked through Guomao, admiring the dazzling Christmas decorations. I approached the Citic building, which was dark, as the interior is still being finished. Will Alibaba lose its shine before reaching the top of the capital? Ma’s empire is at a critical juncture.
Monday, Dec. 21: ‘One country, two systems’ anniversary fades in China’s memory
What happened 36 years ago on Dec. 19? My impression is that few Chinese people would be able to answer this question quickly. On that day in 1984, China and the U.K. signed their joint declaration paving the way for the handover of Hong Kong.
Britain’s prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, attended the signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, along with her Chinese counterpart Zhao Ziyang. Also present was Deng Xiaoping, then China’s supreme leader, who spearheaded the country’s “reform and opening-up” policy and was obsessed with restoring Chinese rule over the British colony.
The 1984 Sino-British joint declaration stipulated that Hong Kong’s existing capitalist system and way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years after the transfer in 1997 — until 2047.
This is the basis of the “one country, two systems” formula proposed by Deng, which guarantees a high degree of autonomy for the territory. Deng stressed to Thatcher that China would keep its promise at any cost, and told her that 50 years was not just a random time frame.
“We came up with the number with China’s reality and need for development in mind,” he said, according to the Deng Xiaoping Nianpu, or chronicle.
Has China kept Deng’s promise?
The government established the Hong Kong national security law at the end of June 2020, essentially depriving residents of their political freedoms. China has a zero-tolerance policy toward anyone who goes against the Communist Party. Its intentions are clear.
On Dec. 9, Hong Kong’s High Court denied bail to pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow, who awaits an appeal of a 10-month sentence for inciting an unlawful assembly in 2019 and faces other charges.
On Dec. 11, Hong Kong police indicted Jimmy Lai — founder of the Apple Daily, a local newspaper critical of the Communist Party — for violating the national security law.
While the U.K. has vocally accused China of failing to honor the 1984 declaration, Beijing appears defiant. Wang Wenbin, deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, flatly told reporters on Dec. 15: “With Hong Kong’s return to China, all the rights and obligations related to the British side under the Sino-British joint declaration have been completed.”
China’s leadership seems to consider tightening its grip on Hong Kong essential for enhancing the Communist Party’s position, with President Xi Jinping at its “core.”
The party’s annual Central Economic Work Conference, held to set an economic management policy for 2021, wrapped up last Friday. A resolution adopted at the meeting repeatedly referred to a concentration of power in the party, of which Xi is the core leader.
About six months ahead of the party’s 100th anniversary, the resolution described the authority of the Central Committee as “the fundamental bastion to prevent the entire party and the entire people from flinching in times of crisis” and stressed the need to “strengthen the party’s full guidance.”
The Central Committee is made up of approximately 200 of the party’s most-senior officials.
The resolution ended with a call for strenuous efforts to celebrate the centenary with excellent achievements and realize the “Chinese dream” of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
On Saturday afternoon, I walked near the Great Hall of the People — the site of the signing ceremony 36 years earlier. Outside, at least, there was no sign of a commemorative event.
Despite temperatures near 0 C, the park surrounding the adjacent National Centre for the Performing Arts was busy with walkers and joggers. After bringing COVID-19 under control faster than other countries, China is becoming increasingly confident in its brand of one-party rule.
Friday, Dec. 18: China’s Chang’e-5 moon probe makes Mao’s ‘wishes come true’
Japan rejoiced over the return of the Hayabusa2 asteroid probe earlier this month, while the Chang’e-5 spacecraft is making headlines in China.
The Chinese capsule landed in the Siziwang Banner, in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, at around 2 a.m. Beijing time on Thursday. It was carrying around 2 kg of material scooped from the surface of the moon.
The mission, which brought rock, soil and atmospheric samples back to Earth for laboratory analysis, required sophisticated technology. This makes China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples after the U.S. and former Soviet Union, which carried out the last such successful mission 44 years ago.
Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to the Chang’e-5 team members. “It is another major achievement in overcoming difficulties by giving full play to the advantages of the new nationwide system, marking a great step forward in China’s space industry,” Xi said.
“The new nationwide system” is a rallying cry for China to carry out difficult endeavors on its own, in the spirit of Mao Zedong’s calls for “self-reliance.” As the U.S. applies pressure to contain China’s rise as a tech power, Xi likely wants to use Chang’e-5 as a source of national inspiration.
The term “self-reliance” reminds me of the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. Construction began in 1960 with Moscow’s cooperation, but Sino-Soviet tensions prompted engineers dispatched from the Soviet Union to return home. It took China eight years to complete the project alone.
A monument inscribed with Mao’s “self-reliance” slogan still stands at the foot of the bridge.
Xi has often used similar language since the U.S.-China row intensified in 2018, with President Donald Trump seeking an economic decoupling. At the fifth plenary session of the Communist Party’s 19th Central Committee in late October, Xi said the nation needs to strive for self-improvement.
Playing up the Mao connection, Wu Yanhua, deputy head of the China National Space Administration, told reporters on Thursday that “precious moon samples collected by Chang’e-5 will also be stored in Chairman Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, Hunan Province.”
Mao once wrote a poem that read: “We can clasp the moon in the ninth heaven. And seize turtles deep down in the five seas. We’ll return amid triumphant song and laughter.” Wu explained that the lunar materials will be sent to Shaoshan “to make Chairman Mao’s wishes come true.”
As for the U.S.-China tech rivalry, it is likely to continue even after Trump leaves office and President-elect Joe Biden takes over on Jan. 20.
Asked if there is any chance that China will share the moon samples with NASA, Wu replied: “We want to cooperate with other countries, but unfortunately the U.S. bans any exchanges between NASA and Chinese government agencies. It depends on the U.S. government’s policy whether we can cooperate or not.”
Monday, Dec. 14: China and Russia make a show of unity on Nanjing anniversary
Sunday marked the 83rd anniversary of the Nanjing Incident, also known as the Nanjing Massacre, in which troops from the Imperial Japanese Army are accused of killing a staggering number of Chinese people.
Possibly out of consideration for relations with Japan, Chinese President Xi Jinping and six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee did not attend the memorial ceremony in the city of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, for the third consecutive year.
Still, back in 2014, the government designated Dec. 13 a national day of mourning for the victims, and memorials are held across the country every year. A related event was held this weekend at the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, near the Marco Polo Bridge in Beijing.
I had heard that a photo exhibition at the museum would be organized to coincide with the Nanjing anniversary. I was told it was a collaboration between the war museum and the Russian Embassy in Beijing, and that it would feature photos taken by female journalists of the former Soviet Union.
But when I got there, I found a surprising scene. The place was full of Russian visitors, with numerous children among them. A banner hanging in the hall just inside read: “The Great Patriotic War through the lens of female photojournalists.”
The Great Patriotic War is a term used in Russia to refer to World War II.
A short while later, Andrey Denisov, Russia’s ambassador to China, appeared and a memorial ceremony began. The participants observed a moment of silence to honor the Nanjing victims.
Russians taking part in the ceremony, most of whom were young, laid flowers one by one. Denisov told reporters, “Russia and China particularly love peace because they are the two countries that suffered the most damage from World War II.”
Denisov even referred to a Chinese Communist Party slogan proposed by Xi: “Don’t forget original aspirations.” It seemed as if the two governments had joined hands to issue a warning to Japan.
China and Russia share a long border and, historically, have been locked in a lengthy confrontation. But since Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president in 2017, Beijing and Moscow have drawn closer.
When Russia held a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in Moscow’s Red Square in June, 105 honor guards from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army also attended.
No other major country sent troops to the parade amid the coronavirus pandemic, but China helped Russia save face.
Russian President Vladimir Putin often stresses that relations with China are “at the highest level in history.”
Right now, Japan’s relations with both China and Russia are not bad, either. China would likely prefer to keep Tokyo close, one way or another, as a way to check the U.S.
But Beijing cannot predict how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and his Democratic Party administration will approach China, and nor can it know how Japan will respond. President Xi Jinping’s administration seems alarmed that Japan might distance itself from China. And Russia will be observing all these shifts closely.
Denisov’s visit to the anti-Japanese war museum on the Nanjing anniversary must have been carefully calculated. This occurred to me as I watched the ambassador leave the museum, beaming at other visitors.
Monday, Dec. 7: The Tsinghua connection — Xi recruits US big tech to his cause
Chinese President Xi Jinping has not looked happy in his public appearances in recent months. But he seemed to be in an unusually good mood in a video message celebrating the 20th anniversary of the advisory board of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management on Thursday.
“I want each member of the advisory board to actively make proposals for China’s development,” Xi said in the message to his alma mater.
The board includes prominent political and business leaders from China and other countries. The honorary chairman is former Premier Zhu Rongji, who also attended Tsinghua University. Honorary members include former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, while the current chairman is Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“China is building a new framework of development, which pushes for dual circulation,” Xi said in his address, calling for board members’ cooperation with the economic strategy decided at the Communist Party’s Central Committee meeting in late October.
The strategy, intended to see China through to 2035, aims to take advantage of both domestic and international demand. The idea is partly to make supply chains more dependent on China, ensuring the country becomes even more indispensable to the global economy.
Xi appears to be trying to win over American tech giants, including Apple, amid persistent political uncertainty in the U.S. even after Joe Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump in the recent election.
State-run China Central Television on Friday showed a video conference involving Vice President Wang Qishan, Cook and other overseas members of the advisory board. “China, which continues to develop, is beneficial for all human beings,” Wang said.
Wang has been outspoken recently, after a period of silence. Given his strong connections with U.S. business leaders, I have a feeling he will play a prominent role in implementing the “dual circulation” strategy.
On Saturday morning, I stopped by Tsinghua University for the first time in a long time. Outsiders were still not allowed to enter the campus to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Right next to the main gate stands a building with a unique design: It houses the offices of Chinese tech conglomerate Tsinghua Unigroup’s affiliates.
Tsinghua Unigroup, which is expected to power Xi’s drive to produce semiconductors domestically, is in financial turmoil. The company defaulted on a 1.3 billion yuan ($200 million) bond in mid-November.
Xi and Wang are banking on Tsinghua University to underpin their economic agenda, but the core of the institution is not necessarily stable.
Friday, Dec. 4: China turns its ‘wolf warriors’ on Australia, but at what cost?
China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats are growling again — this time at Australia.
The two countries’ latest round of diplomatic sparring began when Zhao Lijian, deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, posted an incendiary image on Twitter on Monday.
The image depicts a smiling Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan child. “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers,” Zhao wrote, referring to Australia’s own inquiry into alleged war crimes by its soldiers. “We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded immediately by saying that the Chinese government should be “utterly ashamed” for sharing the “repugnant” image. He demanded that China delete the tweet and apologize.
Zhao has a history of controversial tweets: His post in March that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, where the pandemic started, is still fresh in the world’s memory.
Despite Morrison’s fiery protest, Zhao has not deleted the image from his account. On the contrary, as of this writing the Afghan tweet was pinned, so that it shows up at the top of his timeline.
Hua Chunying, the director-general of the information department and Zhao’s superior, defended the tweet at a regular news conference on Tuesday. She categorically rejected Morrison’s criticism of what he called a “falsified photo.”
“A falsified photo? Australia accuses China of using a falsified or fake photo, and even of spreading false information, but such an accusation is in itself a false one,” Hua said. “What’s going viral online is not a ‘photo,’ but a graphic created with computer techniques by a young Chinese artist.”
She continued: “Computer-generated graphics and falsified pictures are two different things. The graphic depicts a fact because its creation is based on the inquiry report issued by the Australian Defense Department.”
Relations between the two countries have sharply deteriorated since April, when Morrison called for an independent international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. China has hit Australia with a barrage of trade penalties, including a suspension of some meat imports and a tariff of more than 80% on Australian barley.
This week, after Morrison attempted to share his perspective on the Afghan image on WeChat, his post was removed from the Chinese social media platform. When asked about the deletion by a journalist with a foreign outlet, Hua on Thursday said she was “not aware of it.”
“What you asked about is a matter between the WeChat company and Prime Minister Morrison,” she said. “WeChat deals with business affairs following its rules.”
No one takes her remarks at face value, of course. Everyone knows that in China, all social media sites are under the control of the authorities.
These “wolf warriors” are the global faces of President Xi Jinping’s administration. With their hard-line tactics, I cannot help but wonder whether they are really serving China’s national interests.
China has drawn criticism over the Afghan tweet not only from Australia but also the U.S. and U.K. Even countries with which it still enjoys relatively good relations, such as New Zealand, have expressed concern.
On Thursday morning, I walked around the Australian Embassy in Beijing. It is situated near Sanlitun, an area popular with young people. I had figured security must be tight, considering the tensions, but it appeared to be just another day — unlike the area around the U.S. Embassy, which is crawling with police officers.
I do not sense that anti-Australian sentiment is spreading among average Chinese people. So who, then, are the “wolf warriors” speaking for? It is unusual for diplomats to go after a specific country so openly. I would love to hear what they really think.