TIME North Korea

The Interview May Be Funny; North Korea and Kim Jong Un Are Not

North Korean leader Kim inspects the Artillery Company under the KPA Unit 963, in this undated photo released by North Korea's KCNA in Pyongyang
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the Artillery Company under the Korean People's Army Unit 963 in Pyongyang on Dec. 2, 2014 KCNA/Reuters

The Sony Pictures movie has been shelved because of alleged threats by North Korea — a country that should be taken seriously

If you were hoping to spend Dec. 25 at a movie theater watching a comedy about the violent death of a dictator, you are out of luck.

Sony Pictures on Wednesday announced it is pulling The Interview, the Seth Rogen and James Franco film linked to a massive hack and threats of violence on U.S. soil. The decision came as authorities investigate whether or not the threats are credible, and in advance of solid evidence about who is responsible for the attacks. U.S. intelligence officials believe it was North Korea; others (including the smart folks at Wired) say the links are tenuous at best.

I’ll leave the cyberforensics to the pros and steer clear of questions about the film itself. I have not seen it (though TIME’s esteemed critic, Richard Corliss, has), and though I suspect scholars will have a field day dissecting The Interview‘s handling gender and race, I defend the studio’s right to make movies about whatever they choose. The Interview may be, as Corliss writes, a “parade of ribald gags,” but Americans, unlike North Koreans, are free to watch such fare. Ribald is nothing.

As a Beijing-based correspondent who often writes about North Korea, the interesting bit is how the fury surrounding the film casts light on how we think about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the country is officially known. Despite its axis-of-evil pedigree, its truly egregious human-rights record, and a nuclear weapons program, North Korea is more of a punch-line than a policy priority or topic for serious, sustained discussion. And that, I reckon, is what’s really dangerous.

It is not the jokes, exactly, but the fact that they play into a narrative that wildly underestimates, or willfully ignores, North Korea. Asked by the New York Times about the fallout from the film, Rogen, said the backlash was “surreal, “not something that we expected at all.” Few expected a hack of this magnitude, sure. And Kim Jong Un’s regime may not be directly responsible for this particular attack. But his country is indeed experienced in cyberespionage. And yet, Rogen could not fathom that they’d lash out?

In a roundabout way, Rogen’s quote reminded me of comments by Merrill Newman, the 85-year old veteran who spent two months as a detainee in Pyongyang before being released in December 2013. During the 1950–53 Korean War, Newman led South Korean fighters operating behind enemy lines. North Korea hated the unit. Yet, according to The Last P.O.W., a new Kindle Single written by longtime foreign correspondent Mike Chinoy, Newman entered as a tourist unconcerned that he could run into trouble with the regime, let alone be arrested and detained for war crimes.

Some DPRK basics: for North Korea, the Korean War, also known as the Fatherland Liberation War, never ended. There was an armistice agreement, but it was meant to be temporary; a peace treaty was not signed. North Koreans are taught that the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, was a masterful general who repelled two waves of foreign invaders, the Japanese, and then the Americans and South Koreans. His son, the late dictator Kim Jong Il, and his grandson, current leader Kim Jong Un, stayed in power in part because they’ve convinced their people that the U.S. military and its South Korean allies could return at any moment, and only a strong leader — a veritable God among men — can keep them safe.

As much as he’s revered at home, Kim Jong Un is infantalized by outsiders. When he came on the scene in late 2011, biographical details were scarce. We knew that he was probably in his late 20s, that he spent part of his adolescence at a boarding school in Switzerland, and that he might like basketball. From these clues were cobbled a narrative that felt credible: he was young, malleable, and maybe more open to the West. TIME put him on the cover under the tagline “Lil Kim.”

It’s worth considering how wrong we were to dismiss him. There is no question that Kim Jong Un is younger than your average autocrat. But he did not emerge, baby-faced and bumbling, from nowhere. He was raised by dictator Dad in a family where shooting is the preferred pastime. At some point after his stint in Switzerland, he attended his country’s most prestigious university, the Kim Il Sung Military Academy. After purging his uncle, touring sad-looking factories, or disappearing for while, people were quick to count him out. Each time, he proved us wrong. His long-suffering country is still in a tenuous position: the economy is weak, and thanks to the porous border with China, ordinary people have more access than ever to foreign goods and ideas. Hunger persists, health care and education are rudimentary or absent, especially in rural areas, and people have almost no political or civil rights. These are serious and enduring problems. But from a North Korean perspective, the leader is strong.

If you need to crack a Kim Jong Un joke this holiday season, I get it. We tend to joke about things that are strange, things scare us, and things that we don’t quite understand. But do so with an eye to what’s really going on north of the 38th parallel. The Interview may be funny. North Korea definitely is not.

Read next: Everything We Know About Sony, ‘The Interview’ and North Korea

TIME Taiwan

Cross-Strait Ties Just Got More Complicated

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou walks out of a voting booth at a voting station during local elections in Taipei
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou walks out of a voting booth at a polling station in Taipei during local elections on Nov. 29, 2014 Frank Sun—Reuters

Taiwan politicians must fathom how to engage with China without vexing voters who are increasingly distrustful of Beijing

Ma Ying-jeou is having a bad week. Taiwan’s President went into this weekend’s local elections battered, his approval ratings low. Then on Saturday his party, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), got thoroughly trounced, losing ground across the island, including key mayoral posts in Taichung and Taipei. The results prompted Prime Minister Jiang Yi-huah to resign and 80 cabinet colleagues to also offer to step down — an act of contrition that may or may not be enough to staunch growing dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of food-safety scandals, the economy, and the island’s relations with China. Ma may yet resign his chairmanship of the KMT.

China and Taiwan have been at odds since Mao Zedong’s communists prevailed and the nationalists beat a retreat across the strait. Ma came to power in 2008 promising to put existential questions about Taiwan’s relationship with China on hold, focusing instead on building economic ties with the Chinese mainland. He was re-elected in 2012 in a hard-fought battle with the opposition Democratic Progress Party (DPP), which is generally more skeptical of Beijing. It was a narrow victory — Ma beat challenger Tsai Ing-wen by about 6% of the vote — and in the years since, his government lost more ground. This spring, demonstrators occupied the legislature under the banner of the Sunflower Movement to protest the government’s handling of a proposed trade pact with China, only heightening the sense of a political reckoning to come.

This weekend, voters delivered it. While it might be tempting, especially from a distance, to read the results as a sort of referendum on cross-strait ties, to do so is to misunderstand the island’s electoral landscape. What the results show, Taiwan watchers say, is that the voting public is deeply unhappy with the status quo under the KMT, including, but not limited to, their China policy. They are worried about quality of life issues, clean government, and want their leaders to focus on competing globally, not just trading with China. “These are local elections, fought on local issues, by local personalities, so we have to be careful not to overinterpret the results” says Alan D. Romberg, distinguished fellow and the director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. “Cross-strait relations were not at the center this time, but next time, in [the 2016 general elections], they will be.”

Indeed, the KMT losses are particularly striking considering that the 2016 presidential election is fast approaching. The prospect of a KMT defeat in that contest — that is to say, a win by the opposition DPP — could potentially alter the calculus of cross-strait ties. Unlike the KMT, which accepts some iteration of Beijing’s “one-China policy,” the DPP is more reticent. The DPP maintains that Taiwan is already a sovereign nation and should engage with China on those terms. The DPP does not see reunification in the future, a no-no for Beijing. As such, the prospect of a DPP government in 2016 is sure to worry the Communist Party’s top cadres. Says Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan specialist at Davidson College in North Carolina: “Beijing is definitely not loving this.”

Especially right now. Since late September, pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have occupied for long stints three neighborhoods in the former British colony, demanding a more representative voting system. The movement is, like the Sunflower Movement before it, student-led and fueled by a deep distrust of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Though Hong Kong is not — as any Taiwan person would tell you — the same as Taiwan, Beijing cannot be pleased with the parallel. Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province and compares Hong Kong to an impertinent child. At a time when President Xi Jinping is speaking evocatively of an “Asia-Pacific dream” and forging ties abroad, it is awkward to have trouble at (what he considers) home.

Going forward, Taiwan politicians must find ways to engage with China without alienating a public that is increasingly wary of Beijing’s embrace. “The question for China is: How do we deal with a Taiwan that does not make anything easy?” Rigger says. After the week he has had, President Ma may be wondering the same thing.

TIME North Korea

New Kim on the Block: The Rise of Kim Jong Un’s Little Sister

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the Sinchon Museum
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the Sinchon Museum in Pyongyang in this undated photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 25, 2014 KCNA/Reuters

But who exactly is Kim Yo Jong?

At last, a North Korea rumor proves true: all year, Korea watchers have been buzzing about the rise of Kim Jong Un’s little sister, Kim Yo Jong. She popped up at her father Kim Jong Il’s December 2011 funeral, then reappeared next to her brother on election day in March of this year. (Yes, North Korea has elections, of sorts.) Experts speculated that her presence at a high-profile political event signaled that she was on the rise within the regime but, as with many things in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as it is officially called, the theory was just that — until now.

On Thursday, Nov. 26, in an otherwise humdrum account of Kim Jong Un’s visit to a cartoon studio, state media listed Kim Yo Jong as “vice department director” in the powerful Central Committee of the ruling Worker’s Party. In March, when she was pictured beside her brother on polling day, she was identified only as a “senior official.” Though the precise role of a “vice department director” is unclear, that she has an official title suggests a relatively high-profile, and potentially important, role.

So who is Kim Yo Jong? Korea scholars believe she was born in 1987 or 1988, making her 26 or 27 years old, and that she is close to her brother, Kim Jong Un. Their father, former dictator Kim Jong Il, fathered at least seven children by four women, but Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong have the same parentage. They were raised by their mother Ko Young Hui at a hillside estate, says Michael Madden, the founder of North Korea Leadership Watch. Largely restricted to the palace grounds, they were exposed, for the most part, to family members and close friends. “As they say in [Martin Scorsese’s mafia epic] Goodfellas, ‘There were never any outsiders,’” says Madden. “The life of Kim children was hermetically sealed.”

At some point in the mid-1990s, as North Korea starved, Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong were sent to to school in Switzerland. They studied under pseudonyms, presumably to protect their privacy and keep them safe. Remarkably little is known about their time there, Madden says. Upon returning to the DPRK, Kim Yo Jong likely attended university, although the details of that period are still fuzzy. Her stature within the clan started to crystallize at Kim Jong Il’s funeral, when she was spotted walking directly behind heir-apparent Kim Jong Un.

Analysts are still piecing together what, exactly, Kim Yo Jong does. She has been pictured several times in her brother’s company, often on “field guidance tours” (that’s DPRK-speak for the Kim clan looking at things). These appearances have fueled theories that she serves as a sort of events director and aide to her brother, managing his schedule and accompanying him on trips. If that is indeed her role — and again, these things are difficult to pinpoint — it suggests a level of closeness that would give her access to a lot of information. “She may be one of the only people Kim Jong Un trusts completely,” Madden says.

Her presence at Kim Jong Un’s side is rich with symbolism. Her first official public appearance, in March 2014, came not long after the disappearance of her aunt Kim Kyong Hui, who has not been seen since her husband Jang Sung Thaek was executed in late 2013. Before the purge, Kim Kyong Hui was a close adviser to Kim Jong Il, holding key jobs in the ruling party and “protecting her brother’s flank,” according to Ken Gause, a Korea expert at CNA Corp., a Washington, D.C.–based research firm. Kim Il Sung, the country’s revered founding father, also ruled with a sibling — his brother — at his side (until he demoted him).

This new sibling pairing provides an important sense of continuity. Though North Korea is often called a communist state, it is really more of a totalitarian monarchy. North Koreans are taught that Kim Il Sung was a fearsome warrior who, while camped at the base of Mount Paektu with some comrades, crushed a much larger force of Japanese invaders. His son and heir, Kim Jong Il, is said to have been born at the same site, imbued with the same superhuman abilities — heck, he officially shot 11 holes in one in his first-ever game of golf.

Since the deification of the Kim clan is what makes North Korea tick, providing a symbolic link to the past makes sense, even while power passes to the next generation. “The old power elites loyal to Kim Jong Il are being pushed out,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, in an interview earlier this year. “They will be replaced by new, younger elites who can safeguard the leadership of Kim Jong Un.” So goodbye, Kim Kyong Hui, and hello, Kim Yo Jong.

Vote Now: Who Should Be TIME’s Person of the Year?

TIME China

China Has Finally Drafted a Domestic-Violence Law

Kim Lee
Kim Lee leaves court after a session for her divorce trial in Beijing on March 22, 2012 Alexander F. Yuan—AP

But changing attitudes will remain an uphill task

When people speak up about family violence in China, they typically hear one thing: That’s a private matter. Though beating another person is technically illegal, the abuse of your spouse or child is seen as a household, rather than societal, concern; there is no nationwide law prohibiting domestic violence. Solve this yourself, survivors are told, quietly.

On Tuesday, China’s ruling Communist Party finally broke its silence on the matter. After a decades-long push by women’s-rights activists and survivors of abuse, a top government body published a draft for China’s first-ever national family violence law. Though it is just a draft, and far from comprehensive, advocates called it a necessary and important first step. “This was long over due,” says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. “It is just a draft, and it is not sufficient, but it is important and encouraging that they have actually written something down.”

What authorities outlined, and posted online, is an imperfect but ambitious plan to change the way the state handles abuse. Social organizations and individuals would have the right to report violence and police obliged to investigate claims. Those convicted would face punishment — anything from a written reprimand to up to seven years’ imprisonment should the abuse lead to serious injury or death.

That may sound like a forgone conclusion — of course the police must investigatebut, in practice, it is not. Accounts by survivors suggest that family pressure, shame, and police indifference mean that reporting abuse is rare, and legal recourse almost unheard of. In a searing essay for the New York Times, Kim Lee, an American who was beaten by her Chinese husband, recalls sitting at a police station in 2011, visibly bruised, trying to convince the duty officer to help her. They told her to calm down and go home. “As far as the police were concerned,” she writes, “no crime had occurred.”

Lee went home and posted pictures of her bruised face online. Within hours, the pictures were forwarded by some 20,000 people, she writes, and her case became national news. People took to China’s popular social-media sites to share their own stories and vent frustration. That a relatively privileged woman — a foreigner with a famous husband — could not get help spoke volumes. Like many survivors, Lee worried she would lose custody of her children, and the right to family assets, should they divorce. (In a landmark 2013 case, she was granted a divorce on grounds of domestic violence.)

This week’s draft measures could, potentially, help in similar cases. The All-China Women’s Federation estimates that 1 in 4 Chinese women has experienced domestic abuse. (Estimates from other countries are even higher.) If China pushes ahead with the legislation, makes it comprehensive, and strengthens enforcement, the police and courts would be better equipped to take action. The draft suggests that people could seek physical protection from attackers — a restraining order, for instance — a detail that Feng Yuan, founder of Equality, a Beijing-based NGO dedicated to the protection of women’s rights, called “very encouraging.”

But there are gaps. The draft mentions children, which is a good step, but does not include provisions or protections for nonmarried couples (including same-sex couples, who are not legally allowed to marry in China). And how will police officers and courts be trained to interpret and enforce the law? “There are a lot of good laws on the books in terms of rights protection in China,” says Hong Fincher, “yet those laws are not enforced.” She points to countries like India and Bangladesh. Both have decent anti-domestic-violence laws, but have made limited progress curbing abuse.

For the law to mean something, people’s attitudes must change too. Codifying a government response to family violence can help achieve that. “Domestic abuse is not a personal affair,” says Hou Zhiming, director of the Maple Women’s Psychological Counselling Centre in Beijing. “Every person has the right to oppose it, the victims do not need to keep silent.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME The Philippines

It’s Been Five Years Since the Maguindanao Massacre and the Perpetrators Are Still Free

Filipino journalists light candles to commemorate the 2nd year anniversary of the "Maguindanao Massacre" at the National Press Club compound in Manila
Filipino journalists light candles to commemorate the second-year anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre at the National Press Club compound in Manila on Nov. 23, 2011 Erik de Castro—Reuters

On Nov. 23, 2009, in the southern Philippines, 57 people were killed, most of them journalists. There have been no convictions

The killers used a state-owned backhoe to dig a pit, then shoved the bodies in. When investigators arrived on the scene of Nov. 23, 2009, massacre in Ampatuan — a small town in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao — they found the bullet-riddled corpses of 57 men and women, dozens of whom were journalists.

It has now been five years since the worst-ever act of election violence in the Philippine history, and the worst recorded attack on journalists the world has known. By now, the awful details of what happened that day are well established: 57 people, en route to register an opposition candidate for an upcoming election — or, in the case of journalists, to cover that registration — were stopped, executed by gunmen, and buried on site. It was a brutal, sloppy job; the executioners, it seems, were not worried about getting caught.

Five years on, that culture of impunity persists. Though the Philippine’s popular President, Benigno Aquino III, promised swift action on the case, there have been no convictions. Lawyers for the clan accused of orchestrating the massacre — who, like the town are also called Ampatuan — have successfully stalled as prosecutors scramble to hold together their case while assailants track and target witnesses. (Many of the alleged masterminds plead not guilty on charges related to the deaths and deny involvement.)

The trial is a case study in intimidation and abuse. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and have others documented multiple attempts to silence witnesses with cash. Where that fails: violence. Four witnesses have already been killed, including Dennix Sakal, once a driver for one of the chief suspects, who was this month shot to death as he drove to meet state prosecutors. “Dead men tell no tales,” was the bitter remark of the National Press Club.

Even before the killings in Maguindanao, the Philippines was considered one of the world’s worst countries for journalists. More than 100 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since the 1980s, according to local rights groups, and those who target media personnel usually go unpunished. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that upwards of 90% of killers walk free.

Part of the problem is that swaths of the country are controlled by political clans with private armies and legal protection. A 2010 HRW investigation into the Maguindanao killings described them as “an atrocity waiting to happen.” The 96-page report was titled They Own People — a reference to family that, with the help of local police and military personnel, “has controlled life and death in Maguindanao for more than two decades.”

Aquino was supposed to stop this. Early in his term, the scion of an altogether different political family promised to eliminate private armies that thrived under his predecessors, and to pursue justice for Maguindanao. But his government’s handling of the Maguindanao case, as well as the use of violence against media in general, is seen by ordinary people and rights activists alike as a striking and somewhat perplexing failure. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) says that 23 journalists were killed in the first 40 months of Aquino’s tenure — the worst rate since 1986.

Asked about violence against journalists during a press conference with President Obama last spring, Aquino bungled his reply. First, he said that “something like 52 journalists,” were killed at Maguindanao, when the total dead was 57, of which no more than 32 were journalists. Many were surprised by his confusion over a basic fact about an atrocity that, as the PCIJ describes it, “put the Philippines on the world map.”

He then appeared to suggest that the journalists who were killed were corrupt and that this was the reason justice was slow in coming. “Perhaps we are very sensitive to personal relationships by the people who are deceased who were killed not because of professional activities, but shall we say, other issues,” he said.

Graft has been endemic in Philippine journalism for years, but the unfounded suggestion — if that it what it was — that the reporters killed at Maguindanao were corrupt, or that they somehow brought about their own fate, or that they deserved less than swift, sure justice, is naturally outrageous and the President’s comments have appalled the Philippine media corps.

“The lack of justice in Maguindano has merely emboldened those who would kill journalists,” says Shawn Crispin, an adviser for the Committee to Protect Journalists who has investigated the case. “If they can’t prosecute worst ever massacre of media personnel in the history of the world, what message do you send?”

TIME China

The APEC Summit Closes With a ‘Historic’ Climate Deal Between the U.S. and China

Barack Obama, Xi Jinping
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, toasts with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 12, 2014 Greg Baker—AP

But serious differences remain on issues ranging from human rights to trade

On Nov. 9, the eve of President Obama’s arrival in Beijing for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, a bright moon climbed across a dark sky. This took months of staging: to clear the air for arriving dignitaries, the government closed factories, cut traffic and ordered workers home. But by the time Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping sat down to dinner on Nov. 10, the smog was back, and the moon rose, as it usually does, through a toxic pall.

And so went the summit: days of diplomatic murk punctuated by carefully created blue sky. The highlight was the announcement, on Nov. 12, of an ambitious Sino-U.S. plan to curb emissions to tackle climate change. The agreement, which was the result of months of negotiations, includes new targets for the U.S. and China’s first-ever commitment to stop emission growth by 2030. The broader goal is to “inject momentum” into efforts to negotiate a new global pact on emissions in Paris in 2015.

In a joint press conference, President Obama hailed the accord with China as a “historic agreement” and a “major milestone in the U.S.-China relationship.”

The past few years have been tough on those ties. China bristled at U.S. plans to “pivot” to Asia; the U.S. is unhappy with China’s assertive posture on various territorial disputes, as well as on human rights and trade. All this, says Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, has created a “difficult atmosphere for U.S.-China relations.”

The strategy seems to be to find ways to collaborate on issues of common concern while steering clear of the more contentious stuff. In addition to the landmark emissions goals, the U.S. and China reached an understanding on tariffs for technology products, and a military accord aimed at preventing clashes in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Xi, in a rare appearance before the press, said China would “make our due share of contribution” to peace and stability in the region. “Both President Obama and I believe that when China and the United States work together we can become an anchor of world stability and a propeller of world peace,” he said.

“Counter to the heated rhetoric over the last few years, U.S.-China relations show more signs of cooperation than confrontation right now,” says Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.–based Stimson Center. “The key question is, does this adjustment reflect a change in foreign policy in the longer run?”

And that, of course, is very complicated. The last time it hosted APEC, in Shanghai in 2001, China was an emerging market and still finding its way geopolitically. Now China is the world’s second largest economy and a coming superpower. It deals with the U.S. as an equal.

At APEC, both Washington and Beijing pushed for different trade agreements, with the U.S. pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership, which excludes China, and Beijing backing its own Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. China also used the run-up to the summit to announce $40 billion for infrastructure development along what it calls the new Silk Road — a network of railways and airports across Central Asia.

“This is a message for the U.S.,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “China wants to be at the center of economic life in the region.”

Political differences are also acute. The U.S. and its allies, including Japan and the Philippines, are no closer to accepting China’s territorial claims than before. Beijing still seems to think the U.S. and other unspecific foreign forces somehow have a hand in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. And the ruling Communist Party refuses to budge on visas for reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg, who have been given the cold shoulder since running stories about the wealth of China’s top leaders, including Xi.

At the Nov. 12 press conference to close out the meetings, the talk of cooperation was undercut somewhat by awkward exchanges. Xi, unaccustomed to questions from the foreign press, first ignored a question from a Times reporter about the visa issue, turning instead to a reporter from the state-controlled China Daily. After reading a response to the China Daily, he returned to press access, sort of.

“In Chinese,” he said, “we have a saying: The party which has created the problem should be the one to resolve it. So perhaps we should look into the problem to see where the cause lies.”

So much for blue skies and sunshine.

Read next: Time for Change on the Climate

TIME China

A Beleaguered Barack Obama Goes to Meet a Confident Xi Jinping at APEC

What a difference five years makes

The last time President Obama’s plane touched down in the Chinese capital, it was November 2009. The U.S. economy was in the doldrums, Obama was bold and charismatic, riding high on hope and change, and promising a “pivot” east. He met then with China’s stone-faced former President, Hu Jintao, a cadre who oversaw rapid economic expansion but will be remembered for his sheer colorlessness.

Today, the U.S. economy is back on track, but Obama is politically battered. He meets this time around with his new Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping. Since coming to power, Xi has proved himself as savvy as his predecessor was a snore. As growth slowed, he moved quickly to consolidate power and purge rivals, earning comparisons to strongmen like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. His goal is nothing short of the “revitalization of the Chinese nation.” He talks evocatively of the “Chinese dream.”

The reversal of fortune is not lost here. Though the atmosphere at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is outwardly welcoming — heck, they literally cleared the skies of smog for the event — there is definitely a “my, how the tables have turned” sentiment in the air. “Obama always utters ‘Yes, we can,’ which led to the high expectations people had for him,” scoffed one particularly strident editorial in the Global Times, a state-linked newspaper. “But he has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters.”

But the meet may yield more than schadenfreude alone. Having essentially shut down swaths of the northern China to keep the pollution away and the traffic flowing, China will be laying out the welcome mat for the visiting dignitaries, Obama included. On Monday, Nov. 10, the U.S. President delivered a speech at APEC, before a dinner and a fireworks display. The main event will be a meeting at the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday. (From there, Obama flies south to Burma, officially known as Myanmar, and then on to the G-20 in Australia.)

Though the Xi-Obama talks are unlikely to make headway on issues like human rights, cyberspying or disputed territories in the South China Sea, both sides insist there is room for some positive steps, perhaps on climate change or antiterrorism cooperation. And the release of two U.S. prisoners from North Korea on the eve of Obama’s arrival may give them reason to talk about how to manage relations with North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un.

The U.S. will be pushing hard for a trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an American-led agreement between 11 nations that would put the “pivot” into action at last. Secretary of State John Kerry called it “a battle that we absolutely must win.” In Beijing on Nov. 10, Obama emphasized economic integration. There is “momentum building around a Trans-Pacific Partnership that can spur greater economic growth, spur greater jobs growth, set high standards for trade and investment throughout the Asia-Pacific,” he says.

The challenge, however, is that China — which is not part of the TPP — is fighting for a separate pact, the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, or FTAAP. On this and other issues Beijing’s message is clear: We’ll be cordial, but this is a new era, and we can play by our rules.

Read next: It’s Not Obama, It’s Just the Sixth Year

TIME China

Back to the Roots

Since 2001, Yi and her Green Life NGO have planted countless numbers of trees Photograph by Sean Gallagher for TIME

Yi Jiefang draws strength from a 
 personal loss to help make China 
a greener place

Almond orchards once bloomed in Kulun, a parched county in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region. Villagers remember the orchards as lush and white, with petals that fell like snowflakes. When Yi Jiefang first visited Kulun in 2001, she was captivated by the thought of the now absent groves. The image reminded her of springtime in Japan, where she had lived for decades and raised her son. After he died in a motorcycle accident the year before, at the age of just 22, Yi left Tokyo and returned to China, bereft. She wanted to do something to honor the young environmentalist’s memory. He loved trees, so she decided to plant.

At the time Kulun County was under siege, its small farms swamped by waves of sand from the Gobi Desert. The sand swallowed land and seeped into the threadbare hotel room Yi had turned into a temporary base. Too late for orchards, the farmers told her—the earth was too far gone. “It’s like a body,” says Yi, now 65. “You can’t bring it back to life.”

For more than a decade, though, she has done little else but try. Using the money from her son’s insurance claim, she founded a nonprofit called Green Life that is dedicated to planting trees. Her first few seasons were disastrous: saplings shriveled and were blown away by harsh, dry winds. She was frustrated but pushed ahead; she needed a project big enough to distract her from her gnawing grief.

For an office worker from Shanghai, Kulun was an education. The region was once grassland and home to nomadic herders. As the population grew, an ever greater area was cleared to make way for agriculture. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s disastrous attempt to quickly modernize China’s economy in the late 1950s, peasants used scarce foliage to stoke the fires that turned scrap metal to steel. Now factories and water-sucking coal plants dot the landscape, and experts worry that climate change will reduce rainfall, compounding Kulun’s woes.

It’s a story playing out across China. More than three decades of rapid development have wreaked havoc on the environment. Unchecked industrialization has tainted the country’s air, earth and water, threatening both the economy and public health. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation and resource depletion cost China 9% of its gross national income in 2008. A Global Burden of Disease study published by the Lancet found that air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. In many parts of northern China, dirty air blankets cities in a soupy smog, turning day to night.

Desertification is a huge factor. Northern China’s toxic air is thickened with sand. In 2011, China’s State Forestry Administration estimated that over 27% of the country—some 2.6 million sq km—was undergoing desertification, affecting about 400 million people. In 2013 a weeks-long spell of extreme air pollution—dubbed the “airpocalypse” in English—spurred official promises to double down on the pollution fight. China spends about $13 billion a year on tree-planting, including an initiative known as the Great Green Wall. Launched in 1978 and slated to continue until 2050, it aims to plant nearly 36 million hectares of trees across 4,500 km of northern China, theoretically thwarting the desert’s southward march.

Yi sees her work as an extension of this vision. She splits her time between her home in Shanghai, where Green Life has a small office, and Inner Mongolia, where she works with the local government, forestry experts and villagers, as well as volunteers who fly in from across China and around the world. Their efforts are supported by corporate donors as well as private grants, including several from parents who, like Yi, have lost a child. In Kulun the effort has yielded tidy rows of poplar or pine. They are not as elegant as almond orchards, but the oldest trees are straight and tall. The youngest are tiny and windblown, sticks bobbing on a sea of sand. Yi inspects them with the pride of a new mom. “These ones are the youngest!” she says. “Come, look at this!”

Tree-planting has its critics. Researchers note that many trees die, and dust storms persist. Jiang Gaoming, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, once likened tree-planting to the story of the emperor with no clothes—as in nobody wants to say it won’t work. Studies have spotlighted the dangers of plantations with just one kind of tree as they lack biodiversity and are more vulnerable to disease. Researchers worry, too, that thirsty roots may further deplete groundwater. Some even wonder if it would be better to do nothing and let the ecosystem recover naturally. Yi disagrees. Such a program is often a matter of trial and error, she says, and Green Life is now experimenting with native shrubs. Besides, says Yi, tree-planting raises environmental awareness.

The work is hard, but she sticks to it for those moments of grace when she feels close to her son amid the trees. After a long day touring sites near Kulun, we stop the car. The scene is otherworldly: white, rippling dunes framed by fading light. To one side is her fledgling forest, to the other, a stark expanse of scrub and sand. Says Yi, smiling, her eyes wet: “Isn’t it beautiful?” —With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Kulunn

TIME

It’s a Long Way to the Top (if You Wanna Be a Uighur Pop Star)

Heartthrob Ablajan embodies the tension between pop and politics in China's Xinjiang region

Sangzhu is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a pop star. An oasis town of some 30,000 people off the old Silk Road in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, Sangzhu is home to ethnic Uighur farmers, mosques and a bazaar. Women move quietly through courtyards, pulling their kerchiefs tight against the wind from the Taklamakan Desert. Bearded men lead donkeys down the road.

Then a bus rattles around the corner, shaking sleepy Sangzhu to life. From the backseats of the rusty clunker comes the kind of feral scream that can only be produced by wild packs of teenage girls. They pound the windows and wave their hands with celebrity-stricken abandon, jostling for a better view. “Ablajan!” they yell as they roll by. “Ab-laaa-jaaan!”

Standing street-side in a studded leather jacket and shades, glancing down at his iPhone, is the object of their frenzy: Uighur pop star, and hometown hero, Ablajan Awut Ayup. He looks up at them, smiles a little sheepishly, and touches his hand to his heart. Then he turns to me and pops his collar with all the mock swagger he can muster. “The ladies,” he says in English, “they like my style.”

Ablajan, 30, is one of the hottest singers in China’s vast northwest. His catchy songs fuse the rhythms of Central Asia with the stylings of global pop—a sort of Sufi poetry-meets-Justin-Bieber vibe. On stage, he channels the theatricality of his childhood idol, Michael Jackson, and the tight choreography of K-pop. His first album, Shall We Start?, sold more than 100,000 copies, no small achievement in a limited market. Local businesses vie to endorse Ablajan, and his face graces billboards in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

For Uighur youth growing up amid marginalization and strife, Ablajan’s story is the stuff of legend. Born and raised in a mud-brick courtyard in one of China’s poorest and most isolated counties, unable to speak Chinese or English until his teens, and lacking training and connections in the music industry, Ablajan somehow made it. To his fans, he symbolizes the possibility of a life that is at once modern, successful and Uighur. He often gives free shows and, during performances, tells kids to study hard and get a good job. “The message is that this is the 21st century,” says Ablajan. “We cannot make a living buying and selling sheep.”

Now Ablajan wants to take his music east to the Chinese heartland. He sees his story as proof that there is more to Xinjiang than what you read in the news. He is right, of course, but Xinjiang is a region on edge, and conflict has a way of creeping in. When my Chinese colleague Gu Yongqiang and I returned to our hotel after visiting Ablajan’s childhood stomping grounds, the police were at the door. They thanked us for coming and asked us to be on our way. Said one cop: “It’s a sensitive time.”

China’s Outsiders

Unlike the country’s majority Han Chinese, Uighurs are of Turkic origin and mostly Muslim. As with Tibet, Xinjiang is historically a contested space, held by a series of Turkic, Mongol and Han empires, including the 18th century Qing Dynasty, which gave the region its current name, meaning “New Frontier.” In the 1930s, Uighur leaders in the ancient Silk Road entrepôt of Kashgar declared the first of two short-lived East Turkestan Republics.

When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into being, its troops marched into Xinjiang, followed by waves of military personnel and migrants to settle a territory three times the size of France. In 1949, the year the PRC was founded, Han Chinese accounted for roughly 6% of Xinjiang’s population; today the figure is about 45%. Uighurs say they are outsiders in their own land. While Beijing has brought development to Xinjiang, most of the new wealth is concentrated in Han hands. Many Uighurs want greater autonomy, some call for independence.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party views those demands as an existential threat. In recent years, any unrest has been met with ever escalating force by Beijing. In 2009, protests in Urumqi degenerated into clashes that claimed nearly 200 lives, both Han and Uighur. The authorities responded by detaining Uighurs and cutting off the Internet for nine months. They have since further curbed the teaching of the Uighur language in schools, banned under-18s from praying in mosques, and stopped civil servants and students from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. On Sept. 23, Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, a moderate activist, was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism,” a charge many say was trumped up and a verdict many condemn as excessively harsh.

Such government action has radicalized some Uighurs. In October last year, a vehicle carrying three members of a Uighur family crashed through crowds of sightseers in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five, including the passengers. Some months later, eight knife-wielding assailants—whom the authorities called “Xinjiang separatists”—slaughtered 29 civilians at a railway station in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province. Two subsequent attacks by extremists in Urumqi killed dozens more and sparked what Beijing calls an anti-terror campaign that has resulted in mass trials, convictions and executions. On Sept. 22, state media said that blasts in Luntai County, which is about a day’s drive from Urumqi, killed at least two people and injured several others.

Security personnel in riot gear now blanket Xinjiang’s major cities, and towns like Sangzhu are increasingly sealed off by police checkpoints. Chinese security posters feature racist caricatures of Uighurs: scowling, bearded men with big hooked noses—reinforcing the perception many Han have of Uighurs as backward, dissolute and violent. It’s against this backdrop of suspicion and prejudice that Ablajan—and other young Uighurs—try to climb the economic ladder.

Rhythm and Blues

When we landed in Urumqi, two members of Ablajan’s crew, the improbably named Frank and Caesar, met us at the airport and led us to a black SUV. As Frank steered the beast through rush hour traffic, Caesar talked, in rapid-fire Uighur, English and Chinese, about competing as breakdancer in southern China, and lamented that the central government blocks sites like YouTube where you can listen to rap artists like his personal favorite, Notorious B.I.G., “may he rest in peace.”

Most of Ablajan’s dancers and aides are, like him, Uighur kids from the countryside who dreamed of making it big. They live between worlds, learning Chinese to survive, and English as a cultural lubricant, while still clinging to a language and tradition of their own.

Ablajan attended Uighur-language school and spent his evenings toiling beside his father in the fields, singing folk songs to pass the time. He looks back fondly on his youth. “Xinjiang used to be peaceful,” he says. “Then we lost the peace.”

At 14, Ablajan caught a glimpse of Michael Jackson on TV and, for the first time, imagined a life outside Sangzhu. “When I saw him, I was like, Oh my God,” he says. He started practicing the moonwalk and writing songs, and at 19 made the 32-hour bus journey to Urumqi to study dance.

The next six years were a struggle to make it as a musician, and a struggle with the reality of being poor and Uighur in an increasingly expensive, segregated city. He worked as a wedding singer and practiced English and Chinese. Eventually, he was befriended by another young Uighur musician who gave him a computer, his first, and a workspace in his studio. He spent his days writing music and his nights working Urumqi’s restaurant and wedding circuit.

One of his breakthrough hits, “Is There Space to Play?,” turns rural-urban migration into a metaphor for coming of age, according to Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies and translates Uighur music. The song opens with the sights and sounds of Xinjiang childhood: the call to prayer, distant mountains, a bleating goat. By midway, we’re in China’s pressure-cooker schools, where the bags of books are heavy. It ends in the city—skyscrapers and cars are everywhere. Where are the stars at night? Is there space to play?

Hot Ticket

Ablajan is a big star in a small place. When he walks down the street, there’s an endless stream of people waiting to shake hands. At a Chinese Muslim restaurant in Urumqi, two cooks rush out of the kitchen, aprons and, gloves still on, to wish him well: “Peace be upon you,” they say, using the pan-Islamic greeting. In the town of Hotan, a teenage taxi driver refuses to let him pay. “Just write some more love songs,” he says.

With success and celebrity comes perks that young Ablajan might not have imagined. He has enough to live on his own and to send money and gifts to his family. When he visits his hometown he takes a flight, not the grueling overnight bus. And Uighur girls from as far away as Europe and the U.S. send him messages on Instagram, his social network of choice. “So many beautiful ladies,” he says.

But Ablajan also faces obstacles. Many of his fans do not have the money to buy tickets for his shows, and organizing a concert requires multiple layers of state approval. There are technical issues too. For a late spring performance at a college in Urumqi, his team set up a stage on a basketball court and students carried in wooden chairs to form an ad-hoc auditorium. Police lined the perimeter to watch the crowd. When the music started — two hours late because of technical problems — Ablajan was electric. But the guy manning the spotlight from a Toyota pickup mid-court could not quite keep him illuminated.

After the show, the performers gathered in the school stairwell that served as their dressing room. The dancers greeted friends and basked in the post-show glow, but Ablajan held back, despondent about the delays and glitches. He worries about letting people down, he says, and feels the pressure of being a role model to an entire generation of Uighur kids. “I’m only a bad boy on stage,” he said.

When we met the next morning to catch a flight south, he looked beat. I had bought tickets for 8:00 a.m. not realizing that half the region ignores government-mandated “Beijing time” in favor of “Xinjiang time,” which is two hours earlier. It was actually 5:00 o’clock in the morning and Ablajan had been up all night, replaying the performance in his head. But by time we got to the airport, he was himself again, greeting fans and cracking jokes.

As we boarded the plane, Ablajan was humming the tune to a 2013 hit by Toronto-born rapper Drake: Started from the bottom and now we here / Started from the bottom now the whole team here.

The Politics of Music

Ablajan rarely talks politics, wary, no doubt, of jeopardizing his career. But on July 31, violent clashes erupted in a village outside Kashgar, leaving at least 100 dead, according to state media reports. (The cause of the violence and the death toll are still disputed.) When the authorities then canceled a long-planned concert in Urumqi, Ablajan could no longer hold back. His team spent nearly a month, and a whole lot of money, preparing for what was to be a display of ethnic unity performed in front of officials and broadcast to audiences. Police shut it down less than an hour from showtime. Ablajan posted a picture of himself on Instagram, with a caption that read like a cri de coeur: “My name is Ablajan! I am not a terrorist.”

Late last year, Ablajan released his first Chinese-language music video, “Today,” an MJ-inspired epic featuring a car chase and shots of his entourage dancing on rooftops and roads in Urumqi and Kashgar. The goal was to generate some excitement online for the Mandarin single, his first, giving him a foothold in the bigger, more lucrative Chinese-language market. His manager, Rui Wenbin—a Han Chinese born and raised in Urumqi and formerly of Xinjiang’s culture ministry—believes Ablajan’s music can help bridge the divide between the Uighur and Han worlds. Says Rui: “He can be a messenger of peace.”

It won’t be easy. On my last night in Xinjiang, Ablajan and I walk to a public square near the local government office. It’s a warm evening and many people are out, walking arm-in-arm or pushing strollers. On one side, a group of elderly Han women practices a synchronized dance. Nearby, clusters of young Uighurs listen to music. Before the clock strikes nine, however, the cops come out in golf-cart-size squad cars, sirens blaring. Everyone has to go home.

As we walk back, Ablajan talks about going to Kazakhstan in the fall. If he can scrape up the money, he’d love to see Beijing someday too. “I need proper equipment, a choreographer, costumes, but …” He pauses and searches for the right expression. “Mei banfa,” he says in Mandarin: No solution. “I mean, this is Xinjiang, man.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Sangzhu

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