Another expat leaves Beijing

Will Moss has written a typically excellent and witty post, this time announcing to readers his plans to leave Beijing and head back to California. It is an eloquent farewell, and if you haven’t read it by now (and I’m assuming most of you have) be sure to check out the entire thing.

One of Will’s key points in the post is that expats come and go — in fact, he points out, nearly all of those who come eventually go. Thus the title of his post, “I’m leaving China and it doesn’t mean a thing.” He makes the argument that just because a couple of expats recently made the decision to move back from whence they came it is hardly big news. Not at all. He points to Charlie Custer and Mark Kitto, both of whose unexpected announcements of their departures created quite a ripple effect throughout the blogosphere and other media (here’s my brief contribution to the noise), and wonders why it seemed so novel.

Will writes:

But I was never in danger of staying forever, and nor are most other western expats. That’s why I was amused by the mass fluster that surrounded the public departures of Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer. All of a sudden foreigners were abandoning China! I know and like both Mark and Charlie, and admittedly much of the fluster was within our particular echo chamber, but, seriously, coverage in the New York Times, BusinessWeek and The Economist? Both of their personal experiences can be used to tell larger stories about life and power and business in China (and maybe I’m just jealous that my own departure is about as newsworthy as a bad air day), and both of their articles were great reads. But “foreigner departs China” is the very definition of dog-bites-man. The satirical site China Daily Show nailed it with a funny “dear John” letter from a foreigner to China.

“Foreigner stays in China,” now that’s a story.

Obviously Will is right about expats being famously transient. Those who choose to be “lifers” are a relatively insignificant minority (Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo might — might — fit into that category, as does my former boss in Beijing).

But I kept thinking about this, and wondered, was all the “flutter” being made about expats leaving unjustified, or at least overkill, as Will says? Why did we see that rash of articles and blog posts? Should we have been at all surprised by the media’s reaction?

I don’t think so, and here is why: Charlie Custer and Mark Kitto were not just your ordinary expats who did their time in Beijing and decided to move back home. They were both high profile. Mark was famous for his work in Chinese media and the price he ended up paying for it. (There’s even a Wikipedia page about it.) Charlie was perhaps the most high-profile English-language blogger in China, his posts and translations frequently cited in the likes of the NY Times and the New Yorker.

But their being high profile is only a small part of the story. It wasn’t just that they were leaving, it was how they told us they were leaving.

Mark’s article, You’ll Never Be Chinese, is a scathing indictment of contemporary China, bristling with criticism of the intrinsic unfairness of the Chinese system that is so tilted to the rich and powerful, and the gross unfairness of this system to the little guy.

I pity the youth of China that cannot attend the international schools in the cities (which have to set limits on how many Chinese children they accept) and whose parents cannot afford to send them to school overseas, or do not have access to the special schools for the Party privileged. China does not nurture and educate its youth in a way that will allow them to become the leaders, inventors and innovators of tomorrow, but that is the intention. The Party does not want free thinkers who can solve its problems. It still believes it can solve them itself, if it ever admits it has a problem in the first place. The only one it openly acknowledges, ironically, is its corruption. To deny that would be impossible.

So Mark isn’t just leaving China, but making an extraordinary public statement about what he sees as wrong with China, and why he doesn’t plan to come back. Its outspoken tone and examples of how he personally suffered at the hands of corrupt officials and business partners practically guaranteed it would be printed and reprinted in journal after journal after blog after blog. And indeed it was. Stories about Mark suddenly seemed to be everywhere. I know scores of expats who have come and gone. Not a single one left with such impact. Unprecedented.

Charlie’s departure had its own unique twist. First of all, it came very close on the heels of Mark’s very public attack on China in his own swan song. Second of all. only a short time earlier Charlie had what became a very public scuffle with Yang Rui, host of CCTV’s Dialogue. This incident had nothing to do with Charlie’s decision to leave, but the fact that his farewell announcement came so close to the Yang Rui feud immediately created speculation: Was Custer under pressure to leave? Had they made life hard for him? Is he being thrown out? The answers are no, no and no, but the timing inevitably led to Custer’s announcement having more of a shock effect than it normally would have.

Charlie’s wonderful farewell post was also not typical, and I was not surprised at all to see it stir up a lot of attention. Because he, like Mark, was not just saying goodbye, he was making a statement about China. He gave reasons for his decision:

The first is the air pollution. It’s almost cliche to complain about the air quality in Beijing; it’s terrible and everyone knows it. People here just deal as best they can. Some wear masks outside, and those wealthy enough buy expensive air filters for their homes. Most people just grin and breathe it. I wore masks from time to time, but for the most part, I just breathed it in, too.

Here’s the thing, though: as a foreign citizen, there’s really nothing forcing me to live in Beijing. It is, in many ways, a wonderful city, and it’s probably the most fascinating, exciting place I have ever lived. However, it was also killing me. That’s not really hyperbole; cancer rates in Beijing have risen 60% over the past decade even while smoking rates have remained steady.

And that wasn’t the only thing:

The other big reason — and this applies to all of China, really — is food safety. Things have simply gotten to the point that it’s impossible to feel confident that what you’re eating is healthy, or even real, unless you’re on a farm.

So Charlie wasn’t just leaving China, he was also, at least to some extent, indicting it.

Will Moss is saying right up front that his leaving “doesn’t mean a thing.” Mark and Charlie, on the other hand, do assign meaning to their leaving. In very public statements they made it more than clear that they weren’t just moving back because they missed a relative back home or because they had a new job opportunity, but because they had some specific complaints about China, complaints that resonated with a lot of people and brought both of their farewells a lot of attention.

And I mean a lot. The Global Times has written about one or the other or both repeatedly, as have several other media. Social media, of course, had field days with such pregnant material. I was hardy surprised when foreign correspondents living in China picked up on the meme of expats leaving China. It was news.

So were Mark’s and Charlie’s exits, accompanied by what might be defined as tirades against China, simply a coincidence and a one-time phenomenon, or are other expats in China so sick and tired of the pollution and the food safety and the corruption that they are thinking of leaving, too? Are we witnessing a trend? I don’t take surveys so I cannot say for sure. What I can say is that I’ve been hearing much louder and more intense complaints from my expat friends than ever before, and they are focused mainly at the pollution, the censorship and, to a lesser extent, inflation. I haven’t been back to China for more than six months, but my most outspoken friend told me the Cyber Nanny has become so psychotic that at one point the entire Internet in China seemed to come to a standstill. He also gave me an earful about using Gmail in China. He said he was considering leaving. I heard a similar story from another friend. Wait, I know — this is purely anecdotal and might mean nothing. But it was remarkable to me that I heard these complaints so close to one another, and so close to the time we saw Mark’s and Charlie’s announcements. And these were not people new to China (enough said about that). In an article on this topic of expats leaving China, BusinessWeek suggests the possible upcoming trainwreck of China’s economy might also be scaring foreigners away.

Disillusionment is a natural response to the diminishing opportunities of a slowing economy. “Up until 2006 you could come to China and get funded for something you wrote on the back of an envelope, myself included,” says Anne Stevenson-Yang, the American co-founder of J Capital Research, a Beijing-based equities analysis firm. After 21 years in China she has sold her house in Beijing and is looking to buy in New York City, in case things in China deteriorate rapidly.

Time will tell if there is actually a trend, not simply of expats moving on as they always do, but of their leaving China due to very specific fears about health, censorship and the economy. It may just be a flutter that doesn’t mean a thing, but sometimes I get the distinct feeling we’re seeing China losing some of its luster for those who you’d think would be there forever. We’ll see.

(It certainly hasn’t lost its luster for me; I love the place. But then again, I haven’t lived there for more than three years now.)

The Discussion: 22 Comments

This foul comment has been deleted. Sorry it got through.


November 28, 2012 @ 1:00 pm | Comment

I just asked a Beijing-based expat friend what he thought about Custer and Kitto’s leaving letters. His response? yes, you guessed it: “Who?”

And that I guess is it in a nutshell. Who, apart from the very parochial China blogging crowd and the desperate for news Global Times, care if Custer is indicting China? Who cares if Kitto is making an extraordinary statement (it was a decade ago Mark – get over it)?

People leave China all the time. People far more high profile than the two mentioned (one who I know – Mark – and the other I have barely heard of) included. And they don’t gripe and moan.

Well done Will for injecting some humour into your leaving and getting on with your life without bitterness.

November 28, 2012 @ 1:15 pm | Comment

sorry, I just clicked through one of your links about the stories that appeared everywhere and found a very dodgy website and an even dodgier headline – An Incredible Goodbye Note To China Has Every Expat In The Country Talking

Talk about an inflated level of self-importance. Who writes this rubbish (sorry never heard of this website).

November 28, 2012 @ 1:17 pm | Comment

Well, no one may care, but it sure got attention in the likes of the Economist and BusinessWeek, not to mention The Peking Duck. Somebody finds it interesting.

November 28, 2012 @ 1:19 pm | Comment

tomorrow’s fish and chip paper

November 28, 2012 @ 1:21 pm | Comment

I think it’s an interesting phenomena, especially paired next to the percentage of wealthy Chinese who have overseas bank accounts and green cards.

November 28, 2012 @ 1:57 pm | Comment

I’m being unpleasant again.

Good riddance to another self important blogster. With luck, Moss will get mugged on Venice Beach. Hopefully, Jenne will join the rush, closely followed by the Danwei creatures.

And Richard, if you think I’m out of bounds, put it up to a vote.

November 28, 2012 @ 3:33 pm | Comment

I think there is a changing ratio of benefit to cost to living in China. It’s clearly gotten more and more expensive to live here, while many of the quality of life issues have gotten worse (pollution, traffic, internet, social friction). It doesn’t mean it’s a terrible place or that there aren’t still a lot of great reasons to live here or anything so dire, but as a general rule if they keep raising the rent without improving the property some people are going to decide it’s time to leave.

I also don’t mean to say that nothing has gotten better, but I’ve been in Beijing for 10 years and while there are a lot of new, nice, expensive places to spend your money, that middle ground where most of us need to live hasn’t gotten appreciably better than it was back then. So I have a lot of sympathy with people who just decide it’s not worth living abroad any longer.

November 28, 2012 @ 4:42 pm | Comment

KT, I have the feeling that your “good wishes” are meant very seriously. In that case, I’d say you’re out of bounds. (My vote.)

November 28, 2012 @ 8:21 pm | Comment

@KT – Yeah, that’s pretty out of bounds as far as I’m concerned.

Can’t we just have one day where everyone plays nice on this site for once?

November 28, 2012 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

KT, yes, you are out of line and should know better. Please grow up.

I’ve deleted some offensive comments – quite a few, actually, that were waiting in the moderation queue.

November 29, 2012 @ 1:30 am | Comment

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November 29, 2012 @ 2:23 am | Pingback

Is this really a sudden spate of high profile westerners being driven out of China by intolerable conditions? Or is it just (hate this word) ‘churn’? Could it just be the First Generation China Bloggers/Writers moving on? Many westerners came to China and started blogging/writing about it in the late 90s/early 2000s … might this be just a case of people moving on for family/career reasons? China may be an interesting place to hang out for young graduates/English teachers/entrepreneurs but doesn’t offer good or stable long term career prospects for westerners. It’s also a very difficult place to live if you have kids – unless you are on a generous expat salary that will pay for an international school.

November 29, 2012 @ 3:11 am | Comment

The two examples I cited, Charlie and Mark, did not move because of job opportunities or family reasons. (Mark hasn’t left yet, for the record.) So I don’t see them as products of churn. Of course, churn is why many if not most expats leave. But as I said, in my informal poll my expat friends who are becoming disillusioned with China say their chief complaints are pollution and censorship, to the point they’ve considered leaving. As I said, this is highly unscientific and may not be very meaningful.

November 29, 2012 @ 3:25 am | Comment

I’m pretty tired of the pollution/materialism/corruption/traffic/scary food + consumer products/general lack of civility/increasing costs here. I’ve been in and out of China since 2005 and continuously here since 2008, but I’m actively looking for opportunities back home.

I’m fortunate in that I get to travel frequently to Southeast Asia where I’m reminded that just because a country is developing doesn’t mean it needs to be so grim and miserable.

Nobody in China smiles anymore and I never see the sun. It’s really becoming an unpleasant place.

November 29, 2012 @ 2:59 pm | Comment

“Nobody in China smiles anymore …” Oh no, we saw broad smiles on the face of many delegates to the 18th Big, when they went to or left the Great Hall of the People, especially when they saw foreign cameramen.

November 29, 2012 @ 5:03 pm | Comment

@Richard – When you consider just how few expats do stay long-term, churn cannot be the reason for this. If I told you about a someone who had moved to Germany for work, married a German, had children with them, learned the German language, you would find nothing strange in them deciding to stay in Germany after their contract finished. Yet, in China, the above scenario plays itself out again and again, but in the end people don’t stay – they move their family out of the country despite in many cases having bothered to learn the language and adapt to local culture (something I find to be only weakly related to deciding to stay long-term or not).

Just pinning it on China’s relative poverty is also somewhat dissatisfactory as an explanation. Data is hard to come by, but if you look at sunny Thailand, you can see what at least appears to be a larger population of long-term expats proportional to the total population there despite periodic turmoil and a per capita income roughly the same as China’s. The same phenomenon can be seen in the Phillipines, India, and Indonesia.

Instead, churn keeps the China expat population lower because China has some additional factors which discourage long-term stays. At a guess:

1) The impending sense, justified or not, that things are going to go tits-up at some point.

2) The dictatorship.

November 29, 2012 @ 5:33 pm | Comment

PS – I don’t have time to run the numbers properly, but as an interesting factlet:

Mongolia – 656 American citizens in a population of 2,754,685 (2010 census) means that American citizens make up 0.024% of the population.

Mainland China – 71,493 America citizens in a population of 1,339,724,852 (Sixth National Census conducted in 2010) means that American citizens make up 0.0053% of the population.

That is, Mongolia attracts just under five times more American citizens as a percentage of its population than mainland China does. Consider this the next time you read an article on expats flocking to/away from China.

November 29, 2012 @ 6:06 pm | Comment

We don’t really know, but would also expect culture and just the general ability to get used to an environment (in terms of familiarity to previous experience) to play a role in this process. Looking at the latest census of the PRC, we see that there are significant populations from South Korea and Taiwan – 120750 and 170283, respectively:

I find it interesting to compare China to South Korea and Japan (I know a lot of people here don’t like comparisons, but here it’s just to find potential similarities – nothing to do with the CCP, I swear). Japan has 2.5 million foreign residents and South Korea over 800000. Certainly not small numbers, but much lower than developed countries in the West. I would attribute this to the higher threshold these countries put up for permanent residence and citizenship.

November 30, 2012 @ 1:34 am | Comment

Well, almost all Chinese want to leave this country as soon as they can, from the rich to the poor. why expats want to live in it? I mean, it is an attractive place to travel, to experience, but definitely you don’t want to be trapped there forever.

December 1, 2012 @ 1:23 am | Comment


I don’t find the fact that places like Thailand have ahigher proportion of expats to locals significant for the following reasons:

1)China’s huge population means that it is hard for the proportion of foreigners to locals to climb significantly, no matter how many foreigners move to Beijing or Shanghai

2) Countries like Thailand or Indonesia are attractive because of the warm weather and relaxing atmosphere, a bit like the Carribean. Especially Thailand attracts people who just want to chill out. China is just not that sort of place.

December 5, 2012 @ 11:06 am | Comment

“Especially Thailand attracts people who just want to chill out. China is just not that sort of place.”
Oh, I don’t know. That’s why I’m going this January to China. Chillin’ with the in laws 🙂 And for once, I shall be chilling in more ways than one – looking forward to a Shanghai winter. Tired of sweating faster than I can rehydrate with weak beer! 😉

Anyway, isn’t Hainan meant to be the new “to go” spot for chillin on the beach with a brew or two?

December 5, 2012 @ 11:41 am | Comment

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