When the Party Ends: China’s leaps and stumbles after the Beijing Olympics
Peh Shing Huei
Straits Times Press
When the Party Ends, authored by a Singaporean journalist Peh Shing Huei, is nothing like you would expect from a straight-laced, politically-correct Singaporean. What makes it fly is not just its unlikely wicked sense of humour (beginning with the title, of course), but that it gauges the paradox of rising China spot-on—power, glory, underbelly, et al.
Fielding questions at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Huei does not quite tell when the ‘party’ will end and laughs as he says that the ‘party’ he is referring to is the Olympics party in 2008, which signaled a rising China, but now is one in crisis, facing myriad socio-economic challenges.
Huei in person may not like to do the talking, but his book sure does. There are stories, anecdotes, experiences and encounters distilled from his stint in China from 2008 to 2012 (as China bureau chief for The Straits Times, Singapore) covering stories from the extreme pathos of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008—where a shoddily constructed school building collapsed, killing mostly youngsters, but other buildings withstood the tremors—to the inside spiel on the fall of charismatic leader Bo Xilai, who was a strong contender for the presidency in 2012, and the rage Huei witnessed in a Han mob chasing a lone Uyghur (Turkic Muslim) in China’s far west troubled province Xinjiang in 2011.
There are encounters with many of China’s well-known faces, such as economists, including the indefatigable Yang Yiyong, whose appetite for quantifying China’s national revival has been well chronicled. Yang hogged the news in 2010, saying that China’s revival was ‘62% complete’. Apparently, Yang ran the ‘Great National Revival Process Monitoring and Evaluation Indicators’, using indices such as civility, social and economic development and global influence. This sparked China’s ‘62% jokes’ on the Internet, including masterpieces such as: “I did not sleep well last night. Only 62% asleep. This morning, I had breakfast to be 62% full. It seems I only have 62% of my life to live. Who can help me finish the download of the film which is now 62% complete?”
That is a laugh, but Huei’s chronicle of dissidents and young crusaders is not. Despite surveillance, Huei managed to swing a meeting with baby-faced Wu Lihong, known for putting the ruling party in a tight spot. Wu single-handedly brought national attention to the plight of Lake Taihu, China’s third largest freshwater lake in the coastal Jiangsu province, not far from Shanghai.
The saga of the lake constitutes the quintessential underbelly of China’s breakneck modernisation, with no full stops. In the last decade, the emerald green waters of the lake have turned red/ black because of industrial pollution. It is here that the paddy fields grow the famous Jiangnan rice (China’s basmati), feeding on toxic waters. Huei found that local farmers have outsourced fields to poorer farmers from Anhui. By the way, the locals themselves avoid the Jiangnan brand of rice feted in distant places—Singapore to Japan.
Wu’s story did not end on a happy note. Wu, once hailed ‘environmental warrior’, is in the dock, hauled up by the party for getting on the case of polluting industries. Today, ‘security, surveillance and detention’ is a constant in Wu’s life.
Huei was in China when the protracted tug of war between the country and the US following well-known dissident blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s daring escape from a Chinese prison, undoubtedly with a little help from friends. Guangcheng had invoked the ruling party’s ire for protesting against forced abortions and sterilisations since 2005. Finally, as we know, Guangcheng was granted a fellowship to an American University (and not political asylum, as Chen would have wanted), ‘face-saving’ for China.
And then there is the case of young crusaders such as Wu Heng and Yuan Xiaoyan. Wu Heng was pretty much a normal Chinese University student who wore shorts, rode a bicycle and ate Chinese takeaways of beef and rice —only that the beef he ate wasn’t quite beef. He found out that the beef was actually pork clobbered with beef intestines, marinated in a complex carcinogenic chemical solution to pass off as (the more expensive) beef. Furious and wanting to make a change, Wu started China’s first food safety monitoring website with 30 volunteers. ‘Throw It Out The Window’ has exposed bugs in snacks and chemicals in dumplings, but Wu is pragmatic enough to know his limits of freedom.
Young student Yuan Xiaoyan was just another traveller on the speed train in 2011 when she tweeted on China’s Twitter (Weibo), “D301 has had an accident in Wenzhou…” and followed up with tweets before the state media could step in for damage control. The irony of the accident on the heels of what well-known columnist Thomas Friedman had described as China’s ‘moon shot’ (game-changing move) was that the train in China went 25% faster than the mother-of-speed trains, the Japanese Shinkansen. As India collaborates with players to build its first speed train, it is useful to remember that Japan has had only one fatal accident in the half-century since the high-speed trains started.
Huei did not fail to notice the two faces of China’s new generation, “the young people brought up on a regular diet of Japanese atrocities”. He trawled the Internet to find devastating posts such as, “It is worth celebrating. Japan should have sunk long ago”, just after Japan’s deadly quake in 2011.
It was this that made him trail Chinese writer Murong Xuecun’s “The rise of China has also led to a rise in amnesia”, where China remembers Japanese atrocities with remarkable alacrity but forgets its own. An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion in the late 19th century, an estimated 20 million died during the famine and the Great Leap Forward in the mid-20th century and millions during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Huei met the keeper of a cemetery at inland Chongqing (now a municipality but earlier a part of the province of Sichuan; in India we may recognise the province as famous for ‘Schezwan Chicken’), where the latter once disposed of the bodies of the Red Guards in 1968, a cemetery which the Chinese party refuses to acknowledge. Many may recollect famous writer Ba Jin’s public call for a memorial to Cultural Revolution victims, but again, the party is wary of accepting its own history. Huei visited Mount Ta in Guangdong where a former ‘party’ cadre has set up China’s first private museum, following a generous grant by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing. Take this graphic description of torture methods followed by Mao’s Red Guards: “Stone on corpse: Even after being beaten to death, the victim is not left alone. A giant stone is placed on his body so that in the afterlife, he will not be able to flip around and start anew”.
The book is not a literary feast nor is it glamorous philosophy and it certainly could have been shorter. But it is a readable, balanced treat as Huei sails through China, not as a hapless ang mor (Singlish for Caucasian) but as a gritty veteran switching between Hokkien and Mandarin, Singlish and English that leaves little scope for getting lost in translation.
Anurag Viswanath is a Singapore-based sinologist and currently adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi