Forming of a new 'narrative' in China

Forming of a new 'narrative' in China
ST editor Warren Fernandez (centre) moderating yesterday’s panel discussion during which former China bureau chief Peh Shing Huei (right) and ST deputy foreign editor Chua Chin Hon fielded questions on China.

Almost throughout his five-year stint, The Straits Times' China bureau chief was thinking that the country's "coming-out party" had already ended by the time he arrived, just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

But last year, he met a fellow foreign correspondent while he was covering the scandal of disgraced politician Bo Xilai, and she thought otherwise. In fact, she argued that the party had only just begun.

The encounter got Mr Peh Shing Huei, 38, to rethink his position. Going through his notes from 2008 to last year, he realised that a new narrative was forming: one of "an increasingly assertive China overseas and an increasingly fragile China at home".

This narrative now has a jacket and a title. Called When The Party Ends - China's Leaps And Stumbles After The Beijing Olympics, the book looks at China's rise and challenges after the 2008 Olympics.

Mr Peh, who is now ST deputy news editor, recounted the origins of his book to about 50 people at a panel discussion organised by the Singapore Press Club at the Singapore Press Holdings auditorium on Friday.

Joined by ST deputy foreign editor Chua Chin Hon and ST editor Warren Fernandez, who moderated the session, Mr Peh fielded questions on China's growing clout.

Asked if smaller, neighbouring states like Singapore should celebrate or be worried about China's rise, both Mr Peh and Mr Chua said Beijing needed to show more predictability in its behaviour in order for its neighbours to breathe a little more easily.

In the instance of China's territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands, it would help to know how China would respond in the event of a skirmish, said Mr Peh.

On whether China's belated offer of assistance to the typhoon-hit Philippines - a day later than other countries and at only US$100,000 (S$125,000) at first - was a sign of tit-for-tat over the two sides' territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Mr Peh said it was a clear signal to Manila. "I believe the message was to tell the Philippines that because we are so upset over the South China Sea, we are not going to be as generous," he said.

After being widely criticised for giving too little, the Chinese added US$1.4 million in relief supplies, including tents and blankets, to its humanitarian aid package. But the knee-jerk reaction also shows a "lack of strategic thinking" in its approach to foreign relations, said Mr Peh.

The 320-page book, published by Straits Times Press, is available at bookshops for $28 before GST and also at

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