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.
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.
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.
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.