Mark Kitto recently wrote an article in Prospect explaining why after 16 years in China—during which time he married a Chinese woman, had two children, and ran his own business—he is returning to the west. He outlined several factors that have compelled him to leave the country he once loved. China is no longer the exciting place it was when he first arrived, full of optimism and a new vision for the people. It is now a terribly polluted country, rampant with corruption, clinging to xenophobia and nationalism, and consumed by lust for money. As a foreigner who has lived in China I have experienced all of these issues and yet I do not share Kitto’s pessimism. In fact, I am planning to return to China to live there for several more years.
Kitto’s concerns are well-grounded. Pollution, for instance, is a huge problem. I remember first coming to study in Xi’an in 2009. I knew that Xi’an would have a dry climate. During the journey from the airport to the university, however, it seemed as though we were driving through a fine mist. I soon learned that this phenomenon was the haze of pollution hugging the city. For short periods of time it loosens its grip, long enough to remind everyone exactly what they are missing: blue skies; vitamin D; clearly defined shadow and light.
As for the modern Chinese urbanite’s love of money, I recall one particular conversation with two other women with whom I had done some modelling. (I definitely do not possess model-caliber aesthetics—but foreigners are a rare commodity in China so I was invited). The star of the photoshoot, an official in the Chinese government, was an equestrian aficionado, and that afternoon we were photographed with him on horseback. Returning to the city, it seemed to be a competition between the girls to see who could come up with a more accurate figure for this man’s net worth. “He owned how many horses?” “Did you notice what kind of car he had?” “His watch looked new—and I’m sure it’s not his only one.” You get the picture.
I have also met China’s highly nationalistic fenqings (“angry youth”). One evening I joined a friend and several of her colleagues for dinner. For the duration of our meal the man to my left berated me over “America’s treatment of China.” He told me how America was wrong to meet with the Dalai Lama; how we should remove ourselves from China’s internal affairs and abandon Taiwan; how we should recognize China’s rise and leave it be. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
All of the above examples are not flattering to China. So why am I so sure I want to go back?
What draws me to China is the opportunity to witness the country’s great evolution. Although I am grateful that I was born American I admire China’s long and winding history. Following the events in China, one has the sense that the country is on the cusp of change. Protests seem to expand in scale and have a real influence on government decisions. The copper alloy plant that was the subject of popular opposition in Shifang will no longer be built. The “national education curriculum” will not be implemented in Hong Kong. The Open Government Initiative, established in 2009 by the CCP itself, also seems to show progress in terms of enabling citizens to access information.
Another development encouraging me to return is the appearance of Weibo—the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. I am sceptical about Weibo bringing western-style democracy to China but I do believe that it allows the average citizen to make his or her voice heard. It serves as a forum for the relatively unfettered discussion of current events. Although I can observe and participate from my current American vantage point, I want to be on the ground in China, hearing the actual xiaodaoxiaoxi (news through the grapevine) and contrasting this with discussions on Weibo.
Admittedly there are concerns. The fact that Xi Jinping disappeared for an extended period without official acknowledgment is worrying. This man is presumed to be China’s next leader and yet, in stark contrast to the information available on American presidential candidates, very little is known about him. The recent trial of Gu Kailai and the drama surrounding the 18th Party Congress also highlights China’s corrupt legal system. Gu Kailai’s effusive praise of China’s courts was ludicrous. “In order to uphold the sanctity of the law,” she was reported to have said, “I am willing to accept and calmly face whatever judgment I am given, and I also expect a fair and just judgment.” Who can swallow this? What does it do to a nation’s psyche to be in a situation where the people know the government fabricates such things and the government knows that the people can see through it? How long can a people endure such absurdity?
These two contrasting forces—one towards openness and public participation and the other towards opaque government control—are what make China fascinating. There are so many good people in China. People with ambition and creativity; people who have suggestions for how their country can be guided in the best direction; people who are proud of China but also recognise its shortcomings. China is in a transition period, with all the pollution, corruption, and social unrest that comes with change. When I look back on my life I want to be able to say that I saw firsthand the development of the world’s most populous nation and most ancient civilization.
In Xi’an I saw things that I found abhorrent, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that I could always return to America. No one was forcing me to stay. In the end I wanted to remain in China because I wanted to know more about what China was like and what it will be like. I still do. I’ll let you know when I find out.
Marjorie Perry is a Program Associate with the China Program. She has spent four years studying Mandarin and hopes to become an “old China hand”