Ringside view of China's rise

As China's Sichuan province was rocked by a massive quake in 2008, journalist Peh Shing Huei fought his way through landslides in snow-capped mountains to get to the giant panda reserve in Wolong and report on the bears' health.

"It was hell when we reached the peak of the mountain," the 38-year-old says over coffee, explaining how he and a hired driver drove downslope in complete darkness on a path just as wide as the vehicle - with no guardrails.

The route was often blocked by roving animals, including a herd of yaks, and rockfalls that Peh had to clear with his own hands in the chilly 5 deg C evening.

"It was just harrowing," recalls the journalist, whose vision is affected slightly by macular degeneration and who co-founded the Macular Degeneration Society of Singapore to help other sufferers. "The slightest slip and we'd just plunge down the ravine."

He got the story, however, and his labours were barely alluded to in the final article apart from this one line: "Wolong, deep in the mountains, can now be reached only via a treacherous 15-hour ride through two snow-capped mountains, blocked in some parts by landslides and boulders."

Five years as The Straits Times China bureau chief left Peh, now deputy news editor at the paper, with so many such untold stories that he told a few in his new book, When The Party Ends: China's Leaps And Stumbles After The Beijing Olympics. It was launched earlier this month by Straits Times Press.

It is his first solo book, though he contributed to Struck By Lightning: Singaporean Voices Post-1965, published in 2006 by SNP Editions.

When The Party Ends is both a report and an analysis of China's growing influence on world affairs, as well as detailing a few of the hoops Peh had to leap through to get the stories.

It begins with the country hosting the 2008 Olympics, widely referred to as "China's coming-out party".

Three weeks after the Olympics "party ended", American bank Lehman Brothers collapsed in the global financial crisis. In response, Beijing announced a 4 trillion yuan stimulus package to mitigate internal effects.

"If I could summarise it, the rise of China came as the West was in a decline. I'd say we're still in that narrative, where China says: 'Maybe my time has arrived'," says Peh, who has been with The Straits Times since 2000. He was first with the sports desk, then covered politics from 2005 until 2008. For his work in China, this year he won the Journalist of the Year award given out by Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay newspapers division.

He had a ringside view of China's glory moments and corresponding slips, having applied for the Beijing assignment soon after covering the Olympic countdown ceremony in Hong Kong. His wife, former ST senior political correspondent Sue-Ann Chia, 37, gave up her job to travel with him. Peh has a stepson, eight, and another child on the way.

China was a steep learning curve, he says. He had to deal with routine bribery attempts at media briefings. Organisers included "red packets" of 300 yuan (S$61) to 500 yuan for each reporter in the press kit, which he either returned or donated to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund. Then there were threats of violence from businesses dissatisfied with how they appeared in the bureau's reports. Fortunately, no actual blows were struck.

In spite of the show of splendour and unity at the Olympics, the country is still riddled with instability and poverty. In 2009, there were violent clashes between the minority Uighur community and Han Chinese in the far west.

Peh was on a heavily choreographed media tour of the area, when his group was ambushed by Uighur women wailing about their menfolk, who had been rounded up by the military police. The media were made to leave, though Peh and his colleagues stayed put until the women dispersed, fearing for the protesters' safety.

Later that day, he saw the Han Chinese head out to extract revenge on the Uighurs. "You saw Chinese streaming out of office buildings in their office attire, wielding whatever they could find. I even saw someone holding a badminton racket."

Reports of such ugly incidents made no difference to China's growing influence. Then premier Wen Jiabao was able to make US President Barack Obama dance to his tune at the 2009 Copenhagen international summit to limit greenhouse emissions. Mr Obama had to crash a meeting of China, India, South Africa and Brazil in order to gain an audience with Mr Wen.

Even as China's high-speed rail system, the fastest in the world, suffered accidents that killed many in 2011, a year later, the country sent a female taikonaut (tai kong is Chinese for space) into space, while America slashed its spending on similar programmes.

Then there was the rise and fall of Chongqing strongman Bo Xilai, whose crackdown on crime gained him local support, yet who was himself implicated last year in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Covering Bo's downfall towards the end of his term in China made Peh think seriously about writing a book - an idea first suggested to him at the start of his stint by then foreign editor Zuraidah Ibrahim. Included in When The Party Ends are all the colourful incidents that could not fit into newspaper reports, and fresh material, such as how Bo jailed a detractor over a tweet on weibo.

Another eye-opening tale looks at the politician's much-touted "greening" drive in Chongqing, which actually ruined the local environment. Bo had all the native banyan trees uprooted and replaced with gingko trees, which provide less shade. The demand for gingko plants also drove up prices around the country.

"What I'm able to do in the book now is dig out my notebooks, use the quotes I was not able to use earlier, add loads of fresh stories and give all these things the space they deserve," says Peh.


When The Party Ends by Peh Shing Huei is available at $28 from most bookstores.

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