Criticising China

The response to my farewell
September 19, 2012

For the August issue of Prospect I wrote an article entitled, “You’ll never be Chinese”. I expressed thoughts and ideas I have held for some time, backed up by observations and personal experiences from 16 years in China. It was not easy to write. Much of it was negative. I was keenly aware that I might upset my friends and family in China. I had also naively expected the words to come flooding out, rather like a sigh of relief. I found myself choking on them. It’s hard to say goodbye.

The article is proving a challenge to live with as well. Thanks to it being freely available online, the readership has been far greater than expected. It was published as I left the UK, where I had been doing a recce for our move, and flew back to China. The first person to comment was at the baggage carousel in Pudong Airport. For approximately one week, I heard from foreign friends and acquaintances in China. The consensus was: “Good points, we all agree, but we can’t say so because we have interests to protect.” Those who had already left China were less inhibited. I watched as the comments piled up on the Prospect website. It was good to see old friends, and enemies, put in their five cents. It was more of a challenge to spot the notorious “fifty cent” gang, the commentators encouraged by the authorities to help with “soft power projection.” They can be subtle.

At the end of that week the article was translated into Chinese and appeared on various discussion boards and the Chinese version of Twitter and Facebook, Weibo. It went from a readership of tens of thousands to hundreds of them, potentially millions. The effect was immediate. I happened to be away from home travelling again. That was fortuitous.

My wife was called into the police station, not as we both feared, for a dressing down, but so the police chief could pass on, from the local, county, and provincial governments, all of which had called him in person, their concern that I might have felt hard done by. “Was everything all right?” he asked.

My wife also had to face her business partner, who has become a close friend. He is of the older generation, and did not like what I had written. He took it personally. If I had been present I fear we would have argued, but while I was away the People’s Daily published an op-ed piece on how not to get upset when foreigners comment on China in negative ways. On my return my friend greeted me warmly and looks forward to a long chat.

The younger generation of Chinese, from the mid-twenties to mid-forties, on the whole seem to approve. I have received personal messages that make the torment of writing, and the doubts I have felt since, easier to bear. The one I shall frame came via a distinguished foreign correspondent who writes brilliantly and perceptively about China. It was sent to him by someone he describes as a one of the best young journalists in China: “I have read an article written by a foreigner who had lived in China for 36 [sic] years and now decided to leave China to UK. His observation about China is very accurate, meanwhile he is also very pessimistic about the next ten years. After I read this, I just cannot restrain myself from crying. I think this article will help you to understand China much better.”

Will there be longer term consequences or repercussions? When I ran my magazines in China, I wrote a review of a book about Xinjiang, the Muslim semi-autonomous region in the country’s north west. Like Tibet, it is a sensitive subject, and my government publishing partners, the “content inspectors,” refused to let me publish it. Two years later those same partners seized control of my magazine business and drove me out with less than no compensation. I rescued a small travel magazine and tried to start again, but I needed a new government partner. Everyone I approached was told by a very senior government official that to co-operate with me would have dire consequences.

We are not leaving immediately. In fact we do not have to be in the UK until the academic year of 2013 starts. And my wife intends to keep her small business going for as long as possible on the mountain. I hope that’ll be for years to come. We’d all like to return here on a regular basis. But you never know when “they” might use “something” against you.