A changing China racked by insecurities

A changing China racked by insecurities
Chinese paramilitary police manning a checkpoint on the road to the riot-affected Uighur town of Lukqun in June this year. The ethnic minorities in Xinjiang feel they have been marginalised.


By Peh Shing Huei

The Straits Times Press/Softcover/304 pages/$29.96 inclusive of GST

Covering China is never boring - a vast, complex nation still in the throes of change - as The Straits Times' China bureau chief Peh Shing Huei discovered in his five years there chronicling those paroxysms.

In 2008, the year he arrived to take up his posting, China was emerging on the world stage and marked it with a coming- out party - the Beijing Olympics. This prompted Peh to wonder if he might be too late: "What happens when the party ends? Have I come too late for the story of China's rise?"

He found, to the contrary, that the excitement was just beginning.

"I spent the next five years documenting the first draft of a slice of this country's story" - a country growing into a global power, full of vitality, but also racked by pain and insecurity.

One of the more spine-tingling moments must have been when he was physically caught between demonstrating Uighurs and paramilitary police while covering the July 2009 riots in the Xinjiang autonomous region of the far west. It was the worst ethnic unrest in China in decades, with nearly 200 mainly Han Chinese killed.

As he recalls: "Backed by three armoured carriers, the helmet-clad force started advancing towards the protesters. I, like many of the other reporters, stood in between the two groups. A paramilitary police officer pointed at me with his club and shouted: 'Get out!' I shuffled to the side of the road and ducked as the Uighurs grabbed stones to rain on the troops."

Xinjiang and two other important border regions, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, have been marked by unrest as their ethnic minorities feel they have been left behind in China's economic growth, discriminated against and marginalised, with the wealth of their lands plundered by the Han Chinese.

Peh's from-the-ground examination of the ethnic minority issue in Xinjiang gives the readers a ringside view of the convulsions as they are played out, showing how complex the problem is in a way that is immediate and easy to grasp.

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