Update: Let’s add this to the thread. A very, very funny parody of the “why I’m leaving China” that seems in vogue at the moment.
Update 2: Wow.
This is an open thread to which I’d like to add a few links. I am late to this, but if you haven’t read Mark Kitto’s article on why he’s leaving China, do so now. I read it behind a pay wall more than a week ago and was blown away. Mark received some fame eight years ago when the magazine business he built from scratch was simply seized by the government, leaving him with no recourse. He only touches on that, a real act of badness, but it ties in with his other complaints about life in today’s China.
One of his criticisms is the emphasis on money. Now, there’s emphasis on money in all societies, and that leads to corruption and crime in all societies. But in China, the obsession with money takes on a quality all its own, and it may well lead to catastrophe.
Modern day mainland Chinese society is focused on one object: money and the acquisition thereof. The politically correct term in China is “economic benefit.” The country and its people, on average, are far wealthier than they were 25 years ago. Traditional family culture, thanks to 60 years of self-serving socialism followed by another 30 of the “one child policy,” has become a “me” culture. Except where there is economic benefit to be had, communities do not act together, and when they do it is only to ensure equal financial compensation for the pollution, or the government-sponsored illegal land grab, or the poisoned children. Social status, so important in Chinese culture and more so thanks to those 60 years of communism, is defined by the display of wealth. Cars, apartments, personal jewellery, clothing, pets: all must be new and shiny, and carry a famous foreign brand name. In the small rural village where we live I am not asked about my health or that of my family, I am asked how much money our small business is making, how much our car cost, our dog….
Once you’ve purchased the necessary baubles, you’ll want to invest the rest somewhere safe, preferably with a decent return—all the more important because one day you will have to pay your own medical bills and pension, besides overseas school and college fees. But there is nowhere to put it except into property or under the mattress. The stock markets are rigged, the banks operate in a way that is non-commercial, and the yuan is still strictly non-convertible. While the privileged, powerful and well-connected transfer their wealth overseas via legally questionable channels, the remainder can only buy yet more apartments or thicker mattresses. The result is the biggest property bubble in history, which when it pops will sound like a thousand firework accidents.
Fear about where China is heading seems to be a topic a lot of expats are worried about at the moment. There is talk here of the US “falling off a financial cliff,” but right now I think China is closer to the edge of that cliff, and that’s it’s also a steeper cliff than ours. I read about China’s falling exports yesterday, and about the chain reaction this creates across the country, and this is going to go on probably for years. It is or will soon be the party’s moment of truth: Can it hold onto power if the people don’t believe it can offer them enough financial opportunity?
Read all of Mark’s rather astonishing article. At the same time, think about Custer’s recent article about leaving Beijing. Pollution, health and safety were among his main reasons. I realize the departure of two expats doesn’t necessarily mean there’s some sort of shift taking place. But I think there is. I’ve had several conversations with expats who have just about had it with the pollution, the lies, the frustrations, the censorship of the Internet (sometimes to the point of simply turning it off) and anxiety over the country’s future. It seems for many China is losing its luster. Back in 2008 I said China would weather the economic crisis better than the US would. And it has. Now, four years later, I’m revising that prediction. I see China in real danger of a financial catastrophe. Its economic miracle really was a miracle but that doesn’t mean it can’t unravel. I edit a weekly newsletter for a multinational company; it’s all about how China’s various economic sectors are doing. I don’t think we in the west know the half of what’s going on in China, the stockpiling of products with no demand, the closure of factories, the slowing down of just about everything. I sure hope I am wrong and China lands softly. It’s still experiencing high growth, but after years of 10+ percent growth, a drop toward 7 percent can be cataclysmic.
There is much more to Mark’s article.
(This post turned out longer and more stream of consciousness than I expected. Apologies.)
Also please check out this post from a blog I should read more often. It’s about China’s relationship to the Olympic Games, what it means for them to win, how they perceive the media’s coverage of their training, etc. What grabbed me most was his comment on Westernization:
While I hesitate to make too much of the Olympics – I don’t think they mean anything in terms of real global power and influence – I can’t help but notice the irony in the PRC government, which regularly tells us that it resists “Westernization” and cherishes unique Chinese cultural accomplishments, expending of so much wealth and national energy to show the world just how well it can “Westernize” by succeeding in a European-inspired endeavor to recreate and romanticize an imagined Greek past. Yes, yes, I am perfectly aware of postcolonial theory… but it’s still ironic….
What bugs me, however, is when sanctimonious Party ideologues argue that “Westernization” is anathema to Chinese culture and unsuited to Chinese realities, when, in fact, the Party embraces those aspects of “Westernization” that serve its power interests (global capitalist trade and finance; Westphalian notions of sovereignty; Monroe Doctrine-like claims to the South China Sea; deals with Hollywood producers; Olympic victories) and reject those that would challenge its political hegemony (“Western” multi-party democracy). The worries about “Westernization,” on the part of CCP elites, is not about cultural authenticity, it’s about a narrower concern with maintaining the political power of a one-party state, which itself is a rather “Western” idea.
Let’s be honest guys. There’s plenty about “Westernization” that you like; it’s just that democracy thing you’re trying to avoid.
Isn’t just about everything in China today about Westernization? Isn’t it what reform and opening up were really all about, even though it attempted to disguise these Western tendencies with “Chinese characteristics”? Isn’t it what the thriving plastic surgery and fashion markets are all about? Doesn’t “development” in China mean becoming increasingly like the West, like pulling down hutongs and replacing them with Versailles-style luxury housing?
Finally, relatedly and belatedly is Custer’s magnificent post on China’s sense of victimhood, freshly stoked by perceived media bias against China’s performance in the Olympic Games. Scanning the outcry online and in the Chinese media, it is clear that any perceived slight against China, even a foolish remark by a swim coach, will immediately be seen as proof of an intricate and calculated conspiracy against China, and the whole burning and plundering of the Summer Palace comes to life once more. Victimhood is the staple food of so many of today’s young Chinese. I wish I had the time and patience and the fortitude to write posts like this one. And sorry for getting to all these stories late.
Okay, that was serious overkill. I hope there’s something in there you can talk about.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.