Leaving China, Westernizing, Playing Victim, etc.

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.

The Discussion: 172 Comments

You’re saying that in many ways the US is supposedly worse. So what’s taking you as you return to the embrace of the CCP?

Let me make this clear – the US is nice for people who are relatively not-poor. It sucks for the other 60, 70%. I’ve let you go on and on about me being a CCP stooge because it’s simply so astonishingly ridiculous.

For one, my origins are from Taiwan, not the mainland. Second, I do not watch CCP media nor have I ever sat down for a single lesson in any CCP school. I have never touched a CCP textbook.

But I’m sure you’ll insist that this is an elaborate lie, while simultaneously implying that I’m under the thrall of conspiracy theorists.

August 18, 2012 @ 9:35 am | Comment

And in case you’re wondering my staunch support of the Taiwan model comes from my first-hand experience of how drastically it has improved the lives and prospects of millions.

Nowhere else in the world but in the Tigers and China has such an economic miracle occurred. Without either the regional wealth effect or natural resources they created prosperous societies WITHOUT engaging in immoral wars.

August 18, 2012 @ 9:38 am | Comment

I have no trouble with the Taiwan model. Autocratic capitalism became democratic capitalism, and the sky did not fall.

August 18, 2012 @ 12:08 pm | Comment

Feeding trolls with sugar may be fun, but the environmental impact is very negative.

August 18, 2012 @ 1:40 pm | Comment

SK Cheung
I have no trouble with the Taiwan model. Autocratic capitalism became democratic capitalism, and the sky did not fall.

Well, to be fair, the 8 years after officially being democratic Taiwan’s economy underperformed severely vis a vis Singapore when it should have boomed. People were rich enough that it didn’t matter, though.

China is nowhere near as developed as Taiwan was in 2000.

August 18, 2012 @ 10:28 pm | Comment

[…]  ”北京烤鸭”博客:离开中国、西化、被迫害情结。。。—— […]

August 20, 2012 @ 2:00 am | Pingback

“…the 8 years after officially being democratic Taiwan’s economy underperformed severely vis a vis Singapore when it should have boomed.”

Yeah, but Singapore doesn’t have a bunch of missiles aimed at it and it has international recognition as being a sovereign country. But hey, don’t let wee details get in the way of a good story, eh?

August 20, 2012 @ 5:39 am | Comment

Taiwan and SK have done it, which offers proof of concept. So the discussion isn’t about whether an authoritarian capitalist society can transition to a democratic capitalist one successfully. The only thing that remains is to determine at what point that can occur.

But as I’ve said before, that isn’t an a priori metric. It’s not like Taiwan hit a certain GDP/capita, and said “here we go”. They made the transition, then people went back and figured out what that number was when it happened. It’s a metric, but it’s not a law of physics, and CHina needn’t be held to that. And similarly, we will only know what GDP/capita China required after the fact.

August 20, 2012 @ 8:36 am | Comment

Mike Goldthorpe
Yeah, but Singapore doesn’t have a bunch of missiles aimed at it and it has international recognition as being a sovereign country. But hey, don’t let wee details get in the way of a good story, eh?

Irrelevant and whiny as usual. The “missiles” do nothing to affect Taiwanese growth, and neither does the international recognition. Taiwan doesn’t have to import 60% of its fresh water.

SK Cheung
It’s not like Taiwan hit a certain GDP/capita, and said “here we go”. They made the transition, then people went back and figured out what that number was when it happened

GDP is an decent proxy for the strength of laws, institutions, education, etc upon which these societies based their transformations. It’s not perfect but generally speaking people who are too busy working all the time are not going to have much time to complain to the government.

August 20, 2012 @ 10:53 am | Comment

Investors, Cookie, investors. You need people to spend their money for growth, n’est pas?

August 20, 2012 @ 11:42 am | Comment

“GDP is an decent proxy for the strength of laws, institutions, education, etc upon which these societies based their transformations.”
—a proxy of sorts, perhaps. But again, its specific level at the time of political transition is not a rigid parameter like a law of physics, as I said. That Taiwan transitioned at a certain level does not obligate China to the same thing.

“generally speaking people who are too busy working all the time are not going to have much time to complain to the government.”
—we’re not talking about complaining. We’re talking about the wherewithal to seek a different kind of government, and the ability to sustain it.

August 20, 2012 @ 12:11 pm | Comment

Mike Goldthorpe
Investors, Cookie, investors. You need people to spend their money for growth, n’est pas?

Uh, no. None of the “tigers” are particularly FDI dependent. In fact all are net creditors to the tune of trillions. Please stop pretending you know anything about economics.

SK Cheung
That Taiwan transitioned at a certain level does not obligate China to the same thing.

There’s no set rule as you said of course, but if anything China needs a higher standard than Taiwan does even to replicate their decade of failure during CSB’s terms.

August 22, 2012 @ 1:56 am | Comment

[…]  ”北京烤鸭”博客:离开中国、西化、被迫害情结。。。—— […]

August 22, 2012 @ 2:36 am | Pingback

Aaaah, Cookster, your naivite is so touching 😉

August 22, 2012 @ 8:42 am | Comment

http://tealeafnation.com/2012/08/mother-of-rape-victim-sentenced-to-hard-labor-chinese-blogosphere-explodes-in-indignation/

Sorry, O/T again. But it’s one of those things that make you go “hmmm…” when it comes to the farce that is the CCP’s legal system.

August 22, 2012 @ 1:43 pm | Comment

@ SK

This is why I think building one visible organization to interconnect all the levers of power in China is not such a great idea. There are simply too many levers to keep in line, too many jerks and jackasses that will abuse the existence of such an organization for their own ends. In the end, it erodes political legitimacy, it erodes social trust, it eats at the very fabric of the nation.

August 22, 2012 @ 2:58 pm | Comment

That being said, the big hiccup in that line of thinking is that there is no possible transition. The Party stays around because there is no viable alternative setup–neither a national organization of comparable scope and heft, nor an ability for Chinese institutions–as they currently stand–to operate without the guidance of an essentially extralegal entity.

The great challenge for the next generation of Chinese thinkers, then, is how to slowly constrain the beast, so to speak.

China has grown and developed to a point where its national survival is no longer at risk from being backwards or poor. So it no longer needs one gigantic set of extralegal forces to push it forwards. Rather, things can and should be codified. The mandate the Party has from the people can and should be renewed in popular elections. But how do we get there absent violent, chaotic revolution?

This is why the survival tactics of some of the hardliner Party members worry me. When they wish to forcibly integrate all the talented organizations that could possibly govern China, what ends up happening is that angry, disaffected people gravitate towards organizations which are wholly incompetent for the job they’ve been given. Basically, if the hardliners never allow a sane, loyal opposition to form, then they consign themselves to creating an insane, disloyal opposition, which (as the Taiping rebellion has shown) is infinitely more destructive.

August 22, 2012 @ 3:08 pm | Comment

The only other alternative would be for the CCP to invent some sort of “morality chip” that could be implanted in all of its high-ranking members. Because under the current setup, it assumes that the higher you go, the closer you become to sprouting wings and a halo.

August 22, 2012 @ 3:11 pm | Comment

To T-co,
if only “morality chips” existed…and they could ramp up production to make enough of them to go around for all the CCP higher-ups who need them (ie. every single last one of them).

“fixing” the current system might be well-intentioned, but I think ultimately futile. At some point, you have to accept that the old beater has no place to go but the scrap yard.

August 23, 2012 @ 5:49 am | Comment

Richard, has been forever, but after that letter I thought “I wonder what is going on on Pekingduck about this”

I’m at work though. so will read the 169 comments later after I’m off.

Hope you are well, congrats on the book.

LW

August 29, 2012 @ 4:01 pm | Comment

[…] now,” wrote Richard Burger, who has lived in Beijing for nearly four years, on his popular blog The Peking Duck, on Aug. 14. “There is talk of the U.S. ‘falling off a financial cliff,’ but right now I […]

September 24, 2012 @ 8:01 pm | Pingback

[…] now,” wrote Richard Burger, who has lived in Beijing for nearly four years, on his popular blog The Peking Duck, on Aug. 14. “There is talk of the U.S. ‘falling off a financial cliff,’ but right now I […]

September 26, 2012 @ 3:45 pm | Pingback

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