Behind the Story: TIME’s Hannah Beech Discusses China’s Next Leader, Xi Jinping

TIME's China bureau chief talks about how she reported on the upcoming political handover in Beijing and why China continues to be a morally oppressive society

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TIME Photo-Illustration. Photograph by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Two days after the U.S. chooses a new President another country will get its own new leadership in a decision that will likely prove just as momentous as the election of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. On Nov. 8, at its 18th Party Congress, the Chinese Communist Party will begin a rare, once-in-a-decade transition of power. Current Party General Secretary Hu Jintao’s 10 years in charge will come to an end and Vice President Xi Jinping will almost certainly take his place as the leader of the world’s most populous nation. There’s a lot at stake for the country — and the rest of the world. As disparities in wealth continue to grow in China, public protests are on the increase and younger Chinese are becoming more vocal online, especially through social media. With increased affluence has come a desire among many Chinese for greater political freedom. That growing social unrest, along with slowing economic growth and recent scandals involving high-level officials, is challenging the Chinese leadership and its resolute defense of weiwen, or the maintenance of stability. Can China under Xi adapt to its population’s changing desires or will the Communist Party find itself in conflict with a growing number of its 1.3 billion citizens?

TIME’s China bureau chief and East Asia correspondent Hannah Beech has been living in Beijing with her family for two years on her current assignment and has lived in the city before. She previously lived and reported from Hong Kong, Bangkok and Shanghai. TIME spoke with Beech about how she reported on this week’s magazine cover story.

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Will this leadership handover be a defining moment in the way China is ruled?
We certainly hope that it will change things. One of the points in the story is that economic globalization has transformed China, and there is an expectation that in the future there will have to be some sort of political change. The question is, When and how does this happen? Will the Communist Party relax control and bring in other reforms? In the worst-case scenario there will be a sudden break, and China will be filled with revolutionary activity. The country is economically freer but it is still as morally oppressive, if not more so, than 10 years ago. We just don’t know yet if Xi Jinping will have the personal reforming ability, credentials or power to effect any real change.

How important is the transition internationally?
The Chinese government doesn’t want people to be that aware of the changeover. They want to make this technocratic transfer of power as seamless as possible. They’re worried about the specter of violence that has followed other transitions. The message being given is it doesn’t really matter who is in charge as long as the Communist Party is in power. The outcome of this change is very important worldwide as China is the second largest economy in the world. It also matters politically because China is using its international voice to speak up more in the U.N. while becoming more vocal in terms of its territorial disputes.

You write that there has been an increase in the number of protest-related incidents. Why are people willing to take the risk now?
For some people they’re so desperate that they see no other recourse. There is no other way to really express opinions if not for protesting. The Internet has played a big role giving people the capacity to organize and come together. As society becomes richer people expect more than just full bellies. They want the same political rights as people abroad. The irony of becoming richer is money isn’t enough to satiate people, and it becomes a question of fighting for basic rights — people are realizing that they deserve these rights.

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What can you tell me about the hard-labor camps you mention in your article?
They’re part of a system called “re-education through labor.” Basically these are camps where anybody, from a dissident to a journalist who writes something on the Internet, can be sent without any normal legal process. You can be detained and sent to a camp for a couple of years, and there’s nothing you can do. The legal community is very critical, and in the last couple of months some state media have started criticizing the camps. It also looks like there is an official move afoot to begin reforming the system.

How did you persuade the “die-hard communists” you interviewed for the story to open up?
Some of them are friendly acquaintances. They’re not locked up in some secret communist room and are happy to talk. They know what democracy and capitalism are about but they choose to continue to believe in a Marxist strand of thought. One of the reasons Marxism is popular in China is because of the incredible growth in the income gap. I think that among the urban poor, people often ask what happened to the communist ideals. There has been a resurgence of going back to Marxist roots as people figure out a way to distribute wealth more equally.

How long have you been reporting from China?
I was born in Hong Kong. My mom’s Japanese but I wanted to learn a different language. Mandarin wasn’t considered a language of the future back then, and those who studied it in college were a rather eclectic bunch. I ended up doing my junior year abroad in Nanjing, which had a very large foreign student population. In fact, my roommate was an Australian woman who now heads an Australian law firm in Beijing and lives in the same compound as me. I started with TIME in 1997 in Hong Kong, only six months before Hong Kong became part of China. I was posted in Beijing from 1999, spent time working from Shanghai and Bangkok, and then moved back to Beijing two years ago.

What’s it like living with your family in a place like China?
I have two small boys and feel lucky that they’re learning Mandarin at school. From a family perspective, on the one hand it’s wonderful being here as the children have access to the language and culture, but on the other hand it’s polluted and has a lot of the problems that any rapidly industrializing country would have. As a foreign journalist there are political pressures on me that don’t exist on those in other professions. Sometimes kids of foreign journalists can be questioned by the police, something that makes me very uncomfortable.

(MORE: Read Hannah Beech’s TIME.com Stories)

How willing are people to speak openly with you?
China is a very tough place for political reporting. You can’t just interview the President. Hu Jintao doesn’t give interviews like Barack Obama does. All you can do is cultivate people who you think have a connection to the leadership circle. But then you’re held hostage to their political connection — are they spinning a story, are they telling the truth? For this story I mostly spoke with academics so they understand that they can get away with saying some things to TIME. Talking to a farmer, for example, is different. They could say something very inflammatory and not really understand what it means for a quote to appear in a Western publication. In that case you have to shield them and figure out ways to protect them.

The Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-member body that holds huge power in China, may appoint its first female member, Liu Yandong, with the reshuffle. Why have they decided to let a woman in now?
Mao said that women hold up half the sky, so until recently there were quotas within government positions that X number of local officials had to be female. Communist equality at least applied to gender. That’s changed now because the quotas have been dropped in the public sector. It is relatively unlikely that Liu Yandong will actually make it into the Politburo Standing Committee. She is sort of an anomaly. One of the bad things about capitalism in China is that women are in some ways being put back into their traditional roles. Having a mistress and prostitution has come back with a vengeance, and you find advertisements in newspapers looking for a secretary who must look a certain way.

Can you tell me a bit more about the Sina Weibo microblogging platform?
It’s basically like Twitter but is kind of cooler. Most people on it are not out there to cause problems and just want to talk about sport and entertainment. There is recognition within the leadership that there is a problem of social discontent and that people need a means of releasing this. Sina Weibo is the way to do this; it lets people use the pressure valve of the Internet to express themselves. The problem, of course, is it can also galvanize action. Sina Weibo is important because normal people can post something about a corrupt local official and actually effect change. But there’s a fallacy that corruption is a local problem and not something that affects the higher reaches of the government. The Bo Xilai scandal made it clear that corruption exists at all levels. The leadership may worry that people could talk online about corruption that directly affects the central leadership.

MORE: Behind the Story on TIME International’s Enda Kenny Cover

14 comments
allen1900
allen1900

How could you judge a nation that you barely konw? Does this self-proclaimed "CHINA EXPERT" really understand about China? I lived in China for about 21 years, and i totally fell in love with this fanscinating nation. China was established for only several decades, all the achievements this great nation have reached, and all the efforts China have made to promote the international economy never failed to amaze the world. On the contrary, the US, with more than 200 years history, is still struggling with its medical care,and the racialism is still raging among the society. In recent decades America did nothing but started numberous wars.

 I am qualified to say that China is  a great nation and Chinese people are also great because I know about China. All that China need is time, plenty of time, to perfect itself.

ATibetanShepherd
ATibetanShepherd

@allen1900 

may be you lived within the web of ignorance and aspiring solely economic gains and you haven't seen any sort of the fact that what common people expect. 

Baoju Liu
Baoju Liu

中国的崛起 只是时间问题

Garry M Burkhalter
Garry M Burkhalter

Russians gave communism up pretty quick once they caught on that they had a choice. With their middle class growing it only makes sense that they'd want the same for others in their country.

Jihobbyist
Jihobbyist

As always, nothing good ever come out of china. Not surprisingly of course, china is the word most dislike country. I see implosion coming. But you wouldn't know it from the inside.

Lee SC Zen
Lee SC Zen

Another China-bashing by the TIME...why i'm not surprised???

Are we in the middle of Cold War 2 with China?

But can u guys write a better story next time??? It's a kinda boring with same strory from China...demoCRAZY, human rights, Tibet, Taiwan, etc bla bla bla...

Maybe u can write something like Xi Jinping is gay or something like that>>>i bet more readers would be curious to buy TIME....

AS for the so called China experts, can u guys learn some basic Mandarin  and maybe read some chinese  text such Analects of Confucius, etc...

At least the chinese made an effort to learn English and study Western philosophy, etc to understand the WEST more...CHINA EXPERT>>>HAHAHA

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Chinese data on

Saturday offered a sign that G4 policy easing was being felt in the world's

second biggest economy., Here

is the point I am trying to make. China and India will still have better economy

in few years as the UK etc. think, think, think they have slow action plan. I

have no idea why. RBS is expected to seek some form of compromise with Brussels

to hold on to the small business-banking network, particularly as it is

becoming increasingly costly to sell off. "We would urge the Government to

press the European Commission to drop its insistence that the branches should

be sold," I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

 

bepeaceful
bepeaceful

What is "morally oppressive".   A half Japanese giving this view.  Give me a break!

Lam6sung
Lam6sung

And "unfree" compared to what standard bearer of "free"? No country anywhere can compare to China due to its sheer size and complexity. China can only compared with itself. The levels of meaningful Chinese freedom can be measured in terms of people's mobility, jobs, financial matters, education, and they are unprecedented in the history of China. Yes, China is not as free as the US, but is it really unfree? And are Americans all free? Do I wish that China can be more free and be there quickly? Do I wish I can retire to the Bahamas tomorrow? Do I get impatient? Of course. But these things take time.

Lam6sung
Lam6sung

" We certainly hope that it will change things."Who are "we"? A non-Chinese reporting in China suddenly speaks for all Chinese or worse, for all foreigners who think they know what's best for China? Whatever happened to reporting, you know, telling the story from as neutral a point as can be struck?

AlCelestial
AlCelestial

I've been working on China.

All the live-long day.

I've been working on China.

Just to pass TIME away.

Tony L
Tony L

Unbelievable insolence !

Michael
Michael

There is no such a thing as PRESIDENT in China!  A president is elected by the people of a country.   In China, no one votes or elects for the top leaders.  No one knows for sure how the top leaders are there.  They are black boxes. 

Using the word "PRESIDENT" for the Chinese leader is both misleading and wrong.  I think the Chinese media started using the word "President" to describe JIANG Zeming which would make the world believe that China is the same, politically, as most industrialized or democratic countries. 

To the contrary,  Mr. LIU Xiaobo,  last year's Noble Peace price winner, is still in jail simply because he advocates political reform in China which would create a new country that will have a real PRESIDENT.  

Only in a democratic China can people see a real "PRESIDENT" and people around the world hope that that day will come soon.