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.
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.)
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.