‘In China, it’s never like this’: An interview with Peter Hessler

September 23, 2013

A pro-Muslim Brotherhood protester pauses during clashes with security forces in Cairo. (MOSAAB EL-SHAMY/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING – Recently transplanted to Egypt after many years in China, New Yorker correspondent Peter Hessler has a unique perspective on both countries. To many China watchers, Hessler represents a kind of gold standard for intimately reported pieces on lesser-known people and parts of the country.

He’s out with his fourth and latest book – published this spring – a compilation of standalone pieces written both from China and after his return to United States in 2008. I caught up by phone with Hessler this summer, just before the military-led coup against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, to talk about his brand of reporting, life in Egypt and what it would take and look like for an Egyptian-style political movement to come to China.

Washington Post: Now that you have some distance from China, do you see things differently, or do you see things there you didn’t before?

Peter Hessler: I think it’s very different now. I don’t think my basic opinions about the place and my gut feelings have changed. But I recognize it as something more distinctive or more remarkable than I realized before. It’s also interesting to be in a place like Egypt, which is in a totally different moment, a political moment not at all an economic moment. It’s totally the opposite of China, in that there is incredible interest in politics and incredible freedom for that basically. It’s something that I never saw in China and it’s interesting to experience that.

Another thing that I recognize of being here is how hard these transitions are, and Egypt in some ways is a more civil society than China. They had a strong religious tradition here. And they did have basically political groups that were some ways in opposition to Mubarak, like the Muslim brotherhood and some political parties and activists group. These are things that China didn’t have and still doesn’t have. Even so with all that in place, it’s been a pretty rough transition here. You can see how many places were damaged, how hard it is to shift people to a new way of thinking, and we are still waiting basically.

It’s sobering, basically, and I don’t think China will have such a kind of transition. It would be difficult because these kinds of groups haven’t developed. If the communist party collapses, there’s nothing at all to take its place. To me, it suggests that it’s not going to happen that way. Perhaps it will be a more gradual thing.

WP: What other differences have you found since arriving in Egypt?

PH: The demographics. You go to protests in Egypt and the population is really young here. You still have big families, it’s like 53 to 55 percent of the population is aged 25 or something. That is clearly what is driving these protests. You have incredible groups, sometimes almost like gangs of young people and even kids and teens. Especially my first arrival here, I was thinking “No kid in China would skip school and go for rocks and police, with tear gas!"

You think about all the pressure on young people in China. Their lives are incredibly regimented. It makes me think that it’s a true revolution. You have a lot of grassroots activities, a lot of street-level protests. It looks much different in China. We get the big statistics on protests that happened in China, but it really matters who those protesters are and what they are asking for. Here [in Egypt] at every protest people would ask for the regime to step down and the president to resign. They demand complete overhaul. In China, it’s never like this, and it’s always specific things, localized demands. You never have a protests asking for the downfall of the communist party.

In China, you don’t have that core of young people, and I think that pushes things to another level because then they’re not experienced and can be extreme. I have seen kids doing things here that are pretty sobering, bodies carried back, and kid getting killed. And it is hard for me to imagine the same happening with the current generation in China.

WP: Why do you think there’s such a difference in China’s youth?

PH: The education pressure is so high in China. Urban kids are often their parent’s only children, so they are pretty heavily monitored. I think also the society is intensely competitive with true opportunities, and a lot of people in Egypt are complaining they don’t have many opportunities. It’s not like that in Egypt. I think when kids have that deep frustration and are not motivated to work, they look for alternatives and are more willing to make commitments to political movements.

WP: As a foreigner, you had advantages and disadvantages in China. What are those for you in Egypt? How have you adapted?

PH: The big difference is language. I’m starting from scratch here. In China, at the end of two years, my Chinese was good enough and I didn’t use a translator when I transitioned to work as a journalist. In Egypt, my wife and I have worked hard and I think we’ve done quite well. We’ve been here one and a half years now, and I’m at the point where I can do a really good conversation and I can do pretty solid basic interviews. I am still a big step away from working without a translator. But I can see that’s going to happen in maybe six months if I put a lot of time into it.

I really like being alone when I am reporting. In China I rarely even worked with a photographer, because I feel the fewer people there are with you, the more natural it’s going to be, and the more you can observe and notice because nobody else occupies your attention.

One of the reason that I made this transition [first to the United States before Egypt] is that I felt there are risks in moving from one book to another. And I wanted to step back a bit and have some time, when I wasn’t researching to study about the language and learn about the new place. I have been glad to do that kind of work.

I think the journalist community in China was unusually skilled, and I think probably it’s the best covered part of the developing world in terms of the American press. There are a lot of people, and many of them speak Chinese. But here it’s very unusual for a foreign reporter to speak Arabic, or even to be learning.

WP: How long will you stay in Egypt and Middle East, and what is next?

PH: Our original plan was to be here for five or six years, and then to move back to China. And I think it still feels that way to me. Basically when I moved out from China, it wasn’t because I was burnt out or sick of the place. I think I was still learning a lot, getting better as a writer and researcher. I did also feel I didn’t want to reach a point where I was tired of it, where I felt I knew everything, no longer appreciating it with a fresh eye. And I also wanted to spend some time in the U.S., and find and establish myself writing about other subjects. It’s one of the reason I wanted to put this collection together, of stories I liked most, including non-China stories. That was important for me to be able to write about a small town in Colorado and the farmers there. Just to prove to myself that I can do this kind of work anywhere and not be limited to just being a China person. But I do look forward to going back to China someday when times are right.

WP: When you go back to China, what do you hope to bring new? What kind of perspective do you hope to have?

PH: I think having seen the political transition is going to be very useful. It’s going to happen someday in China. I think it’s good to see how it happens in another place. I don’t expect the things to be the same, but it will give you a little bit perspective and preparation. Also, being in a society where religion is important, where they didn’t have the huge cultural disruption that China had has given me a different perspective.

WP: When you say transition is going to happen here in China. How do you see that happening?

PH: It’s a big question. I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. I never felt like that in China. From things I hear, the stories have gotten darker. A friend of mine in Beijing told me that among people in Beijing and Shanghai the feeling is down, but people in the provinces seem more up. Maybe people in Beijing and Shanghai have hit the stage where they recognize the flaws or the society and problems. Maybe they’re ready for something different. But compared to what’s happening here, I think China is a long, long away from the same intense unhappiness and energy that has led to changes you have here. The commitment here people make on the street is often sobering.

In China. I never felt that this place is about to collapse. But being here, I really understand it. But China will change, and I think it is inevitable. Every time I go back to China, I just feel people are so much aware. So many of them have sort of an idea of what’s going on outside of their country, they are able to travel, they are able to get more information about other places. They are getting other reference points. When I was living there, the only reference point was really the past. People would say it’s better than 10 years ago, or five years ago. It’s not strictly that way anymore.

Another way that I feel Egypt makes China look good is, given the size, there is a degree of control in China. It’s a real functioning system. But Egypt even under Mubarak wasn’t a true system. In China the party runs the show. In such massive developing country, you have a level of governance. It doesn’t mean good and moral governance, but it means that they are in control.

WP: The way you look at the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party, how is it different and are there any similarities?

PH: The brotherhood is a very weak organization. It scares a lot of people. But I don’t feel it is truly there. They tell you they are in the rural level, grassroots, in villages. But it’s total [BS]. But how long can they last? [Within weeks of this interview, the brotherhood had been ousted.] Some villages may have 7,000 people and there’s not a single brotherhood member there. From that standpoint, there’s no comparison to the party at all.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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