Peh Shing Huei, a journalist and deputy news editor for Singapore’s The Straits Times, served as China bureau chief from 2008 to 2012. Peh’s experiences and observations in China became the subject of his recent book, When the Party Ends — China’s Leaps and Stumbles After the Beijing Olympics. The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell interviewed Peh about his new book, China’s prospects for reforms, and what it’s like to work as a journalist in Beijing and Singapore.
You dedicate a large portion of your book When the Party Ends to the rise and fall of princeling Bo Xilai. Do you believe the ousted Chinese politician’s legacy will outlive his downfall?
Peh Shing Huei: Bo Xilai was hoping that his legacy would be the “Chongqing Model” – a governance which mixed retro Maoist moves with social welfare and a larger slice of the economy for the state-owned enterprises. Unfortunately, his wish will not be granted. His immediate successor in Chongqing, Zhang Dejiang, made clear that there was no such thing as a “Chongqing Model” and much of Bo’s policies in Chongqing have since been rolled back.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
His supporters would wish to preserve his legacy and some have even gone as far as to set up a political party with him as its honorary head. But such moves are isolated and the Chinese Communist Party will not allow it to spread.
Sadly, Bo is most likely to live on as a cautionary tale to other elite politicians in China. The message is that if you stray too far from orthodoxy and get too flashy and arrogant, you will not be tolerated. After the scandal of the Bo downfall, I doubt we will see another politician operating as flamboyantly and colorfully for many years.
China’s top leaders recently embarked on sweeping economic reforms at the Third Plenum of the Central Committee. What is your takeaway from the meeting and the new Chinese leadership?
Peh Shing Huei: Many of the decisions being taken at the Third Plenum have been talked about for years in China. They include the loosening of restrictions to the hukou system as well as the one-child policy and the dismantling of the labor camps. But the previous administration lacked the political will and courage to impose the changes. Clearly, the current team is more daring and has more clout — despite being in place for just a year. This bodes well for China.
It points to a consistent observation made since the new Chinese leadership took power in November 2012 — that the new boss Xi Jinping is among the strongest new leaders the CCP has seen. Xi was able to start his reign with all the key leadership titles in his hands — party, state and most importantly, military. It is a privilege which his predecessors did not enjoy. In the past year, he has consolidated his power and is now able to introduce sweeping reforms.
Having said that, these are early days. It is one thing in China to say that you want to do something. Quite another to actually do it. We have to see if these reforms actually take off. But Xi and his team are off to a good start.
How do you reconcile this idea that China is growing stronger and at the same time becoming more fragile?
Peh Shing Huei: For a one-party state, the fear of losing power is ever present. For China under the Communist Party, it borders on paranoia. Historians have learnt various lessons from the fall of the Soviet Union, but for the Chinese Communist Party, the biggest lesson is to find out the reason for the collapse and ensure that it will not make the same mistakes.
Unlike the Soviet Union or North Korea, the CCP has long chosen a path of opening up, plugging its economy in with the rest of the world. The decision allowed not only the development of the country, but also the continued rule of the CCP. The Party is finally able to improve the lives of the people.
But openness brings problems for a one-party state. Chinese citizens are now well-travelled and exposed to all sorts of ideas around the world. It is no longer easy to maintain command and control. With that, threats to the Party’s dominance also grew exponentially. Twenty years ago, it is unimaginable that an anonymous notice put up in the United States could pose a threat to the Chinese government. Today, it is possible, as seen during the “Chinese Jasmine Revolution” of 2011. One online post on a U.S.-hosted Chinese site called for the overthrow of the Party and it got the Chinese authorities turning out in a massive way to forestall any disturbances.
So even as China is growing in wealth, power and global stature, it also faces a concurrent spike in threats and challenges. This contradictory tension is likely to get more intense and not less.
You’ve worked as a journalist in both Singapore and China, two governments that are known for trying to keep a tight rein on media. How do the two countries differ in terms of their control models, and how do you get around it?
Peh Shing Huei: In Singapore, I’m a local journalist and in China, I’m a foreign correspondent. The roles I play and the way I approach reporting are different. So the controls I face in both countries are also of a different nature.
Singapore’s media laws have been in place since the 1970s. In essence, the government grants annual licenses to the newspapers, ensuring that publications are accountable on a yearly basis. Authorities’ control thereafter tends to adopt a lighter touch, eschewing sledgehammer tactics which would attract unnecessary attention and bad press.
China’s approach towards foreign journalists has changed somewhat in recent years. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China was keen to appear to be open. Restrictions on foreign journalists’ movements were removed. But in the years after the Olympics, a period I wrote about in great detail in my book, the friendliness has slowly disappeared along with China’s growing assertiveness.
During the “Chinese Jasmine Revolution”, the Party made clear it was not afraid to manhandle foreign journalists and issue threats. Media controls were overt, hard and unsophisticated. After the New York Times ran the expose on Premier Wen Jiabao’s family’s riches before the leadership change of 2012, the relationship between the Party and foreign correspondents further degenerated. The latest news coming out from Beijing is that a bunch of foreign journalists will not get their visas renewed at the end of this year. It further reinforces the view that the good days before the Olympics are long over and may not return any time soon.