Last week China organized celebrations to mark the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Bejing that many in Tokyo viewed as symbolizing the government of Xi Jinping and meant for Xi Jinping.
Repeating the same speech
My takeaways from his 2021 speech are that it was basically the same as previous addresses he has given. Yet, as compared to the prior speeches of 2011, 2001 or 1991, Xi’s narrative was a bit more direct and confident this time. Here are some of his statements and assertions:
A tough sell
This speech was never going to win the hearts and minds of people in China’s neighboring countries. No wonder, Japan’s media reacted so negatively. The editorials of major newspapers here almost unanimously expressed concern about the current regime in Beijing.
The Sankei, a conservative daily, for example, carried this headline: “Be wary of a long-term dictatorship and never allow human rights repression to continue.” Even the liberal Asahi and Mainichi newspapers, often considered as more pro-China than other papers in Japan, echoed similar sentiments. They also published editorials critical of China with such headlines as “Who is the CPC governing for?” and “China should not become a divisive superpower.”
Twenty years ago, I was a Japanese diplomat posted to Beijing. The Japanese media then was not as critical of China as it is now. In addition, just 10 years ago, relations between Japan and China — unlike today — were relatively stable, which is why I am a bit perplexed at the current situation.
What’s in a message?
What was intriguing last week were the controversies that erupted over the messages of congratulations sent to the CPC by some in Japan.
Toshihiro Nikai, the pro-China secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, reportedly sent a congratulatory telegram to the CPC. Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition party, and Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Komeito, the junior ruling coalition partner, both made clear that they had sent customary messages of congratulations to their CPC counterparts.
On the other hand, the lack of congratulatory messages from the Japanese government and, more ironically, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), were very notable. Yet as for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, it was not a surprise that he was among the G7 leaders who did not send a message of congratulations to the CPC.
What surprised me most were the remarks made by Kazuo Shii, leader of the JCP, who reportedly said the CPC is “not worthy of the name communist party,” going on to cite China’s activities in the East and South China seas as well as the human rights violations against people in Hong Kong and the Uyghurs.
An incomplete speech
Often in such important speeches, what is missing is historical context and inconvenient facts that counter the official narratives. Xi’s speech was no exception.
A Wall Street Journal editorial from July 1 made exactly that point.
The editorial discussed the historical facts that were never mentioned in Xi’s address such as, “The Communists … let the Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek do most of the fighting against Japan in World War II. Mao (Zedong) and his party then won the civil war in 1949 and proceeded like all communists to purge opponents and take total control.”
“What followed were the bloodiest decades in world history, rivaled only by Stalin’s purges,” the editorial continued, explaining the mass famines and deaths that resulted from the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
A myopic vision
In 2001, the year of the 80th anniversary of the CPC’s founding, I met with a Chinese friend in Beijing who was a senior expert on Japan-China relations. He told me he had just returned from Tokyo where he had met with many prominent Japanese lawmakers, including Mr. Nikai.
He was confident that the politicians he met in Japan would further strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries. After listening to his stories, I said, “Fine, but who were the young Japanese politicians you met with this time? Did you meet some of those who do not always favor China?”
He was apparently embarrassed. Then I said, “Did you speak with Shinzo Abe? Have you met Shigeru Ishiba or Shoichi Nakagawa?” In 2001, Abe, Ishiba and Nakagawa were all young, conservative and promising LDP members in the Diet.
I told the senior CPC member friend of mine, “If you have not met those politicians by now, you will regret it because China and Japan both will have to pay the price in the years to come. That is because those young LDP members are the future leaders of Japan.”
I tried hard to convince him, but he declined to take my advice. He just told me, “I am surprised because I have never heard such a story from a Japanese diplomat before.” What is regrettable is that no one on the Chinese side seems to have followed my advice.
In the end, I was right in predicting that Abe and Ishiba would become LDP leaders. Unfortunately, however, the CPC spent all their attention and effort on trying to get to know and influence pro-China politicians, making no investments in the younger generation of Japanese lawmakers. Diplomatic relations between the two Asian neighbors are now suffering from such a lack of vision.