Peh Shing Huei was, between 2008 and 2012, the Beijing bureau chief for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper. Since leaving Beijing he has written When the Party Ends: China’s leaps and stumbles after the Beijing Olympics, an excellent portrait of the eventful years China went through while he was a correspondent here. He answered our questions by email.
The book covers the same period of time, between 2008 and 2012, that you spent in China as The Straits Times’ China bureau chief. How was writing the book different from writing day to day coverage of the news for a daily newspaper? Was the task of connecting the dots and writing something that took a wider view of China something you felt eager to do while you were working as a newspaper journalist?
As a journalist for a daily, it is very common to get lost in the news and chase one story after another. That is especially the case in a big and exciting country like China where the news is relentless. Too often, you are pulled from one major incident to another. So it is useful to be able to take a step back and have a broader view of China during my years reporting there. The idea of writing a book only came to me towards the end of my stint in China when I could discern a narrative from between 2008 to 2012. But of course, writing a book is vastly different from writing daily stories for a newspaper. For the latter, it comes fast and goes fast and you usually don’t get much time to digest the information properly. But deadlines are clear and quick and you know you have to meet the daily deadlines. Writing a book is the opposite. You have lots of time, plenty of information and the key is to learn how to manage the time and information properly. Sometimes, you get overwhelmed by the information. And if you don’t pace yourself well, there isn’t a daily offstone that forces you to cough out your stories every night. I realised I needed a lot more self-discipline when writing my book. I was the writer, the editor and the discipline master all rolled into one.
Most of the authors I speak to are originally from Western countries. Do you think you bring a different perspective to English-language coverage of China, being from Singapore? If so, what are the advantages of that different perspective?
I believe all journalists seek to be objective and so in this regard, it should not matter where we come from. The aim should be the same: cover the news in as balanced a manner as possible. But of course, we are creatures of our societies and cultures and it is inevitable that you will view events and issues slightly differently depending on where you come from. As a Singapore-born Chinese, whose grandfather emigrated from China, there are some issues which perhaps hit me on a more personal level compared to other foreign correspondents. For instance, when covering the anti-Japanese protests in China, I couldn’t help but think of my country’s own experiences with the Japanese invasion during the Second World War and my family’s trauma as a result of the atrocities. We lost family members and I believed it has informed how I viewed the war and China’s sentiments towards the Japanese. I captured my thoughts in the book.
A large part of the last third of the book is about the factional disputes among Party members, and yet I feel that so little of what goes on within the Party can be confirmed by outsiders. Was writing about the intra-party politics of the CCP difficult?
Most of the last third of the book was on Bo Xilai. While most of the rest of the world became familiar with the former Chongqing leader as a result of his scandalous and dramatic downfall in 2012, I thought it was also interesting to look into how he rose in power in the south-west mega city. His exciting episode led me to the final chapter of the book, which examined the 18th Party Congress, China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Most of the CCP’s elite leadership politics is indeed shrouded in secrecy. It is often described as a “black box”. Few people can claim to have an authoritative account of truly what transpire, but most foreign correspondents still try. Some do must better than others, of course. But if you rely on credible sources and study public comments and appearances carefully and very a long period of time, you can piece together a fairly creditable picture.
I was interested in your suggestion that the CCP needs follow Vietnam by increasing intra-party democracy and allowing the Central Committee members to elect the Party’s top leaders. How receptive to this idea do you think Party members are? It seems to me that up until now, they prefer to hide any disagreement between themselves behind closed doors as much as they can, even though we obviously do end up learning about purges.
The idea of intra-party democracy has been talked about for a long time by many scholars. It is seen as a safe move for the CCP to increase representation while ensuring power remains within the Party. But thus far, there has been little to suggest that the Party is keen to take it up. It seems that a prolonged habit of total control has made the Party highly allergic to even the slightest uncertainty within its ranks. There are no signs that this will change any time soon.
When the Party Ends: China’s leaps and stumbles after the Beijing Olympics is out now in paperpack.
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