A changing China racked by insecurities


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.

Indeed, several of the issues dealt with in the book are treated in this way, with personal stories of the people involved, be they about pollution, land grab or labour unrest. It makes for an absorbing read and for great pacing as well, as the reader is propelled from one episode to the next.

The writer's eyewitness accounts also include his less than pleasant encounters with the authorities, which have always had an uneasy relationship with the media, particularly the foreign media.

Thus, in Xinjiang, when the police spotted him running with a Chinese mob that was hunting down Uighurs, they quickly blocked his way and bundled him into a van along with other foreign journalists.

The attempt at control extended to what was written. In May that same year, unhappy with The Straits Times' nine-page treatment of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen incident, the Chinese foreign ministry summoned Peh to a meeting at which a deputy director conveyed the Chinese government's "deep concern and displeasure" over what it called "reports that had a sensational bent and was aping the Western media".

The official's parting shot to Peh and a colleague who had gone along to the meeting was that if they were unclear about the political sensitivity of stories, they could show the articles to the ministry.

So it is that when reporting on sensitive subjects, some amount of dodging of the authorities was required.

This happened with environmental activist Wu Lihong, who has devoted his life to fighting against the pollution of Jiangsu province's Lake Tai, the ecology of which was severely damaged by the industrial dyes discharged from chemical factories that ring it. Peh and his interlocutor changed telephone numbers and destinations along the way to their meeting to shake off the security people on their trail.

As the writer puts it, the Communist Party's obsession with control shows that "despite its confidence after the Olympics, it remains a fragile and insecure regime, fearful of a few brave men", activists and dissidents who put themselves in harm's way because of their belief that they could help change China for the better.

Like many other activists, Wu has been jailed for his activism, as well as placed under surveillance and sent on enforced "vacations" to prevent him from "meeting foreign journalists or making trips to Beijing during politically sensitive anniversaries".

Despite a colossal security apparatus, however, the regime is sometimes bested by the people, as happened in Wukan in Guangdong province, where villagers rioted for days over the sale of their land by local officials to real estate developers without proper compensation.

Then, after one of their representatives at negotiations with the authorities died under mysterious circumstances following his abduction by a group of men, the villagers forced the local government leaders and police to leave the village. Police laid siege to it, preventing supplies from getting in. Ten days into the siege, the province's party chief Wang Yang intervened with peace offerings that included the sacking of two local officials who were also detained for corruption and the holding of free and fair elections for village leaders.

While the stories are gripping, one or two of them can benefit from fuller backgrounding. For instance, in discussing the labour unrest in 2010, an explanation of why young migrant workers were going on strike despite improved working conditions - albeit still not ideal - and better wages compared with their parents' times would have given readers an idea of social trends affected by and affecting changes in the country.

The book also touches on China's foreign relations during this period, which saw some Chinese hubris, fresh from its Olympics triumph and after the 2008 global financial crisis that weakened the United States and other Western countries. At both the international - 2009 climate change talks - and regional arena - ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010 - China appeared both tougher and less compromising.

The writer dwells longest on the downfall of erstwhile political star Bo Xilai in the run-up to the leadership transition in 2012-2013, showing the schisms within the party that do not bode well for its future if it does not succeed in formulating a power succession mechanism through intra-party democracy that allows for smooth and stable transitions.

Peh joins the dots of events in the last five years that lead up to the power transition, making sense of them and showing that despite the sheen - the second largest economy in the world, first-world infrastructure including its unrivalled high-speed rail network, glittering metropolises - there are many things that ail the party-state.

This is a great book not just for those wanting an analysis of recent political developments in China and an indication of where it is headed, but also for those curious about the behind-the-scenes drama of reporting on a country where the ruling regime is secretive and paranoid about what is said about it.

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