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You’ll never be Chinese
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You’ll never be Chinese
by Mark Kitto
AUGUST 8, 2012
Why I’m leaving the country I loved.
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Death and taxes. You know how the saying goes. I’d like to add a third certainty: you’ll never become Chinese, no matter how hard you try, or want to, or think you ought to. I wanted to be Chinese, once. I don’t mean I wanted to wear a silk jacket and cotton slippers, or a Mao suit and cap and dye my hair black and proclaim that blowing your nose in a handkerchief is disgusting. I wanted China to be the place where I made a career and lived my life. For the past 16 years it has been precisely that. But now I will be leaving. I won’t be rushing back either. I have fallen out of love, woken from my China Dream. “But China is an economic miracle: record number of people lifted out of poverty in record time… year on year ten per cent growth… exports… imports… infrastructure… investment…saved the world during the 2008 financial crisis…” The superlatives roll on. We all know them, roughly. Don’t you think, with all the growth and infrastructure, the material wealth, let alone saving the world like some kind of financial whizz James Bond, that China would be a happier and healthier country? At least better than the country emerging from decades of stultifying state control that I met and fell in love with in 1986 when I first came here as a student? I don’t think it is. When I arrived in Beijing for the second year of my Chinese degree course, from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), China was communist. Compared to the west, it was backward. There were few cars on the streets, thousands of bicycles, scant streetlights, and countless donkey carts that moved at the ideal speed for students to clamber on board for a ride back to our dormitories. My “responsible teacher” (a cross between a housemistress and a parole officer) was a fearsome former Red Guard nicknamed Dragon Hou. The basic necessities of daily life: food, drink, clothes and a bicycle, cost peanuts. We lived like kings—or we would have if there had been anything regal to spend our money on. But there wasn’t. One shop, the downtown Friendship Store, sold coffee in tins. We had the time of our lives, as students do, but it isn’t the pranks and adventures I remember most fondly, not
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A deal had been struck. and are only allowed to stay for weekends.uk/politics/mark-kitto-youll-never-be-chinese-leaving-china/#. or the government-sponsored illegal land grab. and there left a legacy that will haunt the Chinese Communist Party to its dying day. Both have benefited financially. pets: all must be new and shiny. The world obliged and the Chinese people took what he offered. based on my time living here. A free market of sorts was in its early stages. how much our car cost.6/17/13 You’ll never be Chinese from my current viewpoint. too good to be true? Related posts China's new intelligentsia Provocateur in heels China's subversive film star Dambisa Moyo: If I ruled the world We need a global framework that follows China’s lead China diary Moganshan. Except where there is economic benefit to be had. or the poisoned children. The politically correct term in China is “economic benefit. That “incident. where I have lived for the past seven years. One man was largely responsible for the optimism of those heady days: Deng Xiaoping. and carry a famous foreign brand name. That our current business could suffer the same fate as my magazines if the local government decides not to renew our short-term leases (for which we have to beg every three years) does. personal jewellery. I am asked how much money our small business is making. is defined by the display of wealth. He also ordered the tanks into Beijing in 1989. He persuaded the world that it would be beneficial to forgive him for the Tiananmen “incident” and engage with China. is that you upset the people who have very little.” has become a “me” culture. The excitement was more like the eager anticipation I felt once I had signed a deal (I began my China career as a metals trader). everything is not all right. If I had to choose one word to describe China in the mid-1980s it would be optimistic.” as the Chinese call it—when they have to. contribute to my decision not to remain in China. I must stress that this indictment has nothing to do with the trajectory of my own China career. chanting and singing as they marched along snow-covered streets from the university quarter towards Tiananmen Square. It was the first of many student demonstrations that would lead to the infamous “incident” in June 1989. Raising Whales China's new fiction www. on average. clothing. Hence the Party’s campaign to promote a “harmonious society. at least on his watch. they were learning to walk and talk. People were actually excited by that. But this article is not personal.” its vast spending on urban and rural beautification projects. rightly known as the architect of modern China. Cars. Underscoring the optimism was a sense of social obligation for which communism was at least in part responsible.” The country and its people. The trouble with money of course. at long last. which went from metal trading to building a multi-million dollar magazine publishing business that was seized by the government in 2004. rather than the thrill that something truly big was about to happen. so important in Chinese culture and more so thanks to those 60 years of communism. my state-owned competitor (enemy is more accurate) told me in private that they studied every issue I produced so they could learn from me. of course. or unity in the face of the reality that there was no such thing. They proceeded to do everything in their power to destroy me. Social status.co. In Moganshan our local government masters send messages of private thanks for my contribution to the resurrection of the village as a tourist destination. our dog. The Party said: “Trust us and everything will be all right. Deng had promised the Chinese people material wealth they hadn’t known for centuries on the condition that they never again asked for political change. I found the familiar air of optimism. and showing off how much you have. With it came the first inflation China had experienced in 35 years. the top of a mountain called Moganshan. generating either the fantasy that one really could be a selfless socialist. It was a sign of progress. *** Modern day mainland Chinese society is focused on one object: money and the acquisition thereof. to begin the life and career I had long dreamed about. apartments.” In the mid-1980s. It did not take long for Deng to put his country back on the road he had chosen. but there was a subtle difference: a distinct whiff of commerce in place of community. sold for £43m in a small auction room. One night in January 1987 I watched them. which is seldom since the Party has done such a thorough job of deleting it from public memory—coincided with my final exams. During the course of my magazine business. but also clearly state that I am an exception to their unwritten rule that foreigners (who originally built the village in the early 1900s) are not welcome back to live in it. I want to give you my opinion of the state of China.” Twenty years later. and when they do it is only to ensure equal financial compensation for the pollution. and reliance on the sale of “land rights” more than personal taxes. sure that I was going to bank a profit. The key to China Read these short stories China: at war with its history The Communist strangehold on the past Lot 800: the Bainbridge vase Was the story of an antique Chinese vase. are far wealthier than they were 25 years ago. Deng made China what it is today. which in turn has given me enough anecdotes and gossip to fill half a page of Prospect every month for several years.Ub6LbPkziSp 2/6 . 100 miles west of Shanghai. and explain why I am leaving it. They appreciated my contribution to Chinese media. rather than treating her like a pariah. east China.prospectmagazine. In the small rural village where we live I am not asked about my health or that of my family. however. thanks to 60 years of self-serving socialism followed by another 30 of the “one child policy. He also came up with a plan to ensure nothing similar happened again. When I returned to China in 1996. Traditional family culture. and a promise of more to come. communities do not act together. followed by retreat to this mountain hideaway of Moganshan where my Chinese wife and I have built a small business centred on a coffee shop and three guesthouses. in the three biggest cities and one tiny rural community. My classmates and I wondered if we had spent four years of our lives learning a language for nothing. In 1949 Mao had declared from the top of Tiananmen gate in Beijing: “The Chinese people have stood up.
you are stuck. “Accept it. who when called upon to adjudicate in an international dispute sends the message: “You decide”? It is often argued that China led the world once before. soon to be outgoing. a natural disaster—the Chinese can shut the door on it. The country is ruled from behind closed doors.” While there is no dispute that China was once the major world superpower. just as much of it doesn’t like living in an American one. and always will be.prospectmagazine. which when it pops will sound like a thousand firework accidents. who became the Qing. Witness Grandpa Wen. sometimes all the way to Beijing. they only want to “regain their rightful position. But there is nowhere to put it except into property or under the mattress. Chinese property prices have rocketed. Leadership contenders might think. The government is so scared of the people it prefers not to lead them. a building without an address or a telephone number. not homes. The result is the biggest property bubble in history. and physical size matters as it did in the days before microchips.) If you are the biggest. and you throw in a scandal like the melamine tainted milk of 2008. big. and suddenly the harmonious society is likely to become a chorus of discontent. To rise to the top you must be grey. who became the Yuan. to the Chinese. the fates of the Mongols.” The Party only steps to the fore where its power or personal wealth is under direct threat. just say “It’s big. If you don’t own a property. aliens. Moreover. so we have nothing to fear. or a man who genuinely wants to do the right thing. village level decisions that require higher authorisation are passed up the chain of command. such as Tibet.” “Big” is good. with no strong views or ideas.Ub6LbPkziSp 3/6 . and the yuan is still strictly non-convertible. will be in charge of what they call the Chinese Century. an ability to put yourself in your subordinate’s shoes. culturally and as a society. Once in charge the Chinese sat back and accepted tribute from their suzerain and vassal states.” No such thing exists. and he knows it. If you own a property you are more than likely to own at least three.” Too late they realise that will never be possible. Meanwhile. China.” The Chinese are on “The Inside. the troublemakers were set against each other or paid off. In that building are the people who. When the bubble pops. they will cease to be harmonious. powerful and well-connected transfer their wealth overseas via legally questionable channels. Believing themselves to be unique. says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia www. It was “them” or “our leaders. or a fatal train crash that shows up massive. and Manchu.” rather like the movie Alien. the nickname for the current. the remainder can only buy yet more apartments or thicker mattresses. The second reason the rightful position idea is misguided is that the world in which China was the superpower did not include the Americas. according to pundits. In brief. As a publisher I used to deal with officials who listened to the people in one of the wings of that building. How will the Party deal with that? How will it lead? Unfortunately it has forgotten. The promise will have been broken. Maybe they’ll stick up a note: “Knock when you’ve decided how to deal with it. the Yuan (1271-1368) and the Qing (1644-1911).” Once or twice they called it the “China Publishing Group. “China is the next superpower.uk/politics/mark-kitto-youll-never-be-chinese-leaving-china/#. (China loves “big. The polite word is “Outsider. EJ Dionne cites Mark Mazower's cover story David Frum praises Shiv Malik's 2007 article on how Mohammad Sidique Khan became the 7/7 mastermind Prospect Reads Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man. you’ll want to invest the rest somewhere safe. If trouble was brewing beyond its borders that might threaten the security or interests of China itself.6/17/13 You’ll never be Chinese Once you’ve purchased the necessary baubles. that once they are in position they can show their “true colours. in a mildly derogatory sense. His proposals for reform (aired in a 2010 interview on CNN. or in the remote chance that it deflates gradually. And there’ll still be the medical bills.” A key reason China achieved primacy was its size. an enlightened Europe or a modern Africa. China was. If a Chinese person ever asks you what you think of China. a loud argument. If they are denied. or a say in their future. one that cannot be named. The people will want their money back. provide the ultimate deterrent: “Invade us and be consumed from the inside.” Like anyone who does not like what is going on outside—the weather. The stock markets are rigged. the Chinese find it almost Unreal India How do you write about a billion lives? Letters Copycat China Piracy or liberation? Prospect Buzz Toby Young praises Edward Docx's profile of Nigel Farage In the Washington Post.” we’re told. The people in that building do not allow the leaders they appoint to actually lead. Many of our friends do. As it is today. He is either a puppet and a clever bluff. as in Wenzhou in 2011. All non-Chinese are. and returned with the note attached: “You decide. the banks operate in a way that is non-commercial. politically.” and they will be delighted. the wealth the Party gave the people will deflate too. I searched hard for it. is inward looking.” How do you deal with a faceless leader. preferably with a decent return—all the more important because one day you will have to pay your own medical bills and pension. It does not welcome intruders—unless they happen to be militarily superior and invade from the north. what of the ethnic minorities and the factory workers. pensions and school fees. the people on whom it is more convenient for the government to dispense overwhelming force rather than largesse? If an outburst of ethnic or labour discontent coincides with the collapse of the property market. high level corruption. It is a chimera. owning a home has become unaffordable for the young urban workers. besides overseas school and college fees. While the privileged. and here I hypothesise. prime minister. but he will never be able to enact them. as did two imperial dynasties.” Leadership requires empathy. there are two fundamental problems with the idea that it should therefore regain that “rightful position. who became more Chinese than the Chinese themselves. The world does not want to live in a Chinese century. It also requires decisiveness and a willingness to accept responsibility. and vast residential developments continue to be built across the country whose units are primarily sold as investments.co. They always spoke as if there was a monster in the next room. As the Chinese like to say. which amounts to a political voice. you tend to dominate. censored within China) are good. Deal with it. In rural China.
and the Party vows to exact vengeance on their behalf. The alternative scenario to a world dominated by an aggrieved China is hardly less bleak and illustrates how China already dominates the world and its economy. There are good grounds. that the Party does not try to distract people by launching an attack on Taiwan or the Philippines. Our daughter’s very first day at school was spent watching a movie called. which will shut factories and put people out of work and threaten social stability. off the record. To score under 95 per cent is considered www. Sun Yat Sen’s 1911 revolution began when someone set off a bomb by accident. because it is impossible to become Chinese. (My wife was one of the latter. usually if they want to be. Some commentators say it will lead to revolution. The curriculum is designed to teach children how to pass them.) As for resources extracted from Africa.” The Chinese are told on a regular basis to feel aggrieved at what foreigners have done to them. there is one overriding reason I must leave China.co. (I was once a plaintiff in the Beijing High Court. The domestic Chinese lower education system does not educate. *** Fear of violent revolution or domestic upheaval. the selfless soldier who achieved more in his short lifetime than humanly possible. to run my own business in a regulated environment and not live in fear of it being taken away from me. It is true. with a significant proportion of that violence sure to be directed at foreigners. While my lawyer was on his way to collect the decision the judge received a telephone call.” Moral guidance is provided by mythical heroes from communist China’s recent past. Winners go on to college or university to take “business studies. The current “world leader” offers the world the chance to be American and democratic. The decision was reversed. It is meant to. They produce winners and losers. Controlled by people with conflicting interests.) And then there is the propaganda. The Party’s propaganda arm created the term “one hundred years of humiliation” to define the period from the Opium Wars to the Liberation. is not the main reason I am leaving China. let alone foreign ones. It has encouraged its own people to work like slaves to produce goods for western companies.) A leader must also offer something more than supremacy. To speak ill of China in public. The British empire offered freedom from slavery and a legal system.uk/politics/mark-kitto-youll-never-be-chinese-leaving-china/#. which was done to boost domestic consumption. Success in exams offers a passport to a better life in the big city. In rural China. it will bring to an end China’s record-breaking run of economic growth that has supposedly driven the world’s economy and today is seen as our only hope of salvation from recession. I want to give my children a decent education. successfully defeated the Beichuan Earthquake.Ub6LbPkziSp 4/6 . There is little if any sport or extracurricular activity. where we have lived for seven years. Sporty children are extracted and sent to special schools to learn how to win Olympic gold medals. when foreign powers did indeed abuse and coerce a weak imperial Qing government. The second world war is called the War of Resistance Against Japan.prospectmagazine. Everything the Party does to fix things in the short term only makes matters worse in the long term by setting off property prices again. That is the increasing likelihood that there will be upheaval in China within the next few years. Nor is the Chinese Communist Party entirely averse to condoning slavery.” Losers go back to the farm or the local factory their parents were hoping they could escape. to earn the foreign currency that has fed its economic boom. The Romans took grain from Egypt and redistributed it across Europe. A China that leads the world will not offer the chance to be Chinese. encouraged strong anti-foreign sentiment. “How the Chinese people. such as Lei Feng. which would raise the value of the yuan and harm exports. sociable. when it comes. like all such events. is peaceful. There is one final reason why the world does not want to be led by China in the 21st century. or for a public figure to have tea with the Dalai Lama. which won’t boost itself until the Party sorts out the healthcare system. China’s government struggles to be decisive in domestic issues. roughly. (How ironic that the Party manifesto promised to kick the slave-driving foreigners out of China. to award a Nobel prize to a Chinese intellectual. amongst other things. It is a test centre. Whatever form it takes. that I had won my case. I was told. though I shan’t deny it is one of them. Fevered nationalism is one of its cornerstones. Apart from what I hope is a justifiable human desire to be part of a community and no longer be treated as an outsider. they go to China. When it happens it will be sudden. which it hasn’t the money for because it has been invested in American debt.6/17/13 You’ll never be Chinese impossible to empathise. Take the recent cut in interest rates. Witness the postponement of the leadership handover thanks to the Bo Xilai scandal. I hope the upheaval. And the system is designed to make avoidance of responsibility a prerequisite before any major decision is taken. I speak from personal experience. sparked by that property crash. from its very inception. sometimes by force. under the firm and correct leadership of the Party and with the help of the heroic People’s Liberation Army. it is also an elevation system. or a collapse of the state. The pressure makes children sick. Schools do not produce wellrounded. and managed to write it all down in a diary that was miraculously “discovered” on his death. which it can’t sell without hurting the dollar.) And the Party wouldn’t know a legal system if you swung the scales of justice under its metaphorical nose. (I know that sounds crazy. Musically gifted children are rammed into the conservatories and have all enthusiasm and joy in their talent drilled out of them. is to “interfere in China’s internal affairs” and “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. self-reliant young people with inquiring minds. and not to concern myself unduly that the air my family breathes and the food we eat is doing us physical harm. The Communist Party of China has.
is its corruption. and time is short. but that is the intention. I am lucky. It is unlikely they will be given the chance. says Mark Leonard The Key to China : To grasp the new spirit of this country. I do. The Party does not want free thinkers who can solve its problems. Homework. of thousands of mainland Chinese who “follow” such people too.) There are tens. where a post only has to be up for a few minutes to go viral. China does not nurture and educate its youth in a way that will allow them to become the leaders. Chen Guangchen and Liu Xiaobo on Weibo. It might even be possible. but they face a long uphill struggle.’” Einstein REPLY June 11. will it allow challenges to its version of the past? Isabel Hilton reports 329 mico “Nationalism is the measles of civilization. ironically. and have to get a proper job. Many children go to school to do it in the classroom. My wife had never heard of them until she started using the site.Ub6LbPkziSp 5/6 . (The day my wife began reading Weibo was also the day she told me she had overcome her concerns about leaving China for the UK. Many of my local friends abhor the system as much as I do. and must do their own school’s homework for at least a couple of hours every day to complete it before term starts again. says Gabriel Corsetti China’s new intelligentsia: Despite the global interest in the rise of China.uk/politics/mark-kitto-youll-never-be-chinese-leaving-china/#. just as my classmates and I feared for our Chinese friends while we took our final exams at SOAS in 1989. An option is to move back to a major Chinese city and send our children to an expensive international school— none of which offer boarding—but I would be worried about pollution. 2013 « Older Comments www. To deny that would be impossible. Why I’m sticking with China: Marjorie Perry offers a contrary view of China in her response to Kitto’s piece Criticising China: In a follow-up to this article.prospectmagazine. I fear for some of them who might ask for it. wise Chinese people with a modern world view. Julia Lovell recommends this fresh. the closely monitored Chinese equivalent of Twitter and Facebook. Yet China has a surprisingly lively intellectual class whose ideas may prove a serious challenge to western liberal hegemony. maybe hundreds. and would willingly. or do not have access to the special schools for the Party privileged. I have seen them trooping in at 6am on Sundays.6/17/13 You’ll never be Chinese failure. but they have no choice. REPLY June 11. people who could. Mark Kitto discusses the reactions it elicited Chairman who?: Most Chinese are indifferent to their new leaders. help their motherland face the issues that are growing into state-shaking problems. One day they will prevail. and there must be countless more like them in person. The only one it openly acknowledges. most likely something to do with foreign business to China. takes up at least one day of every weekend. I have also encountered hundreds of well-rounded. Bad performance is punished. That’ll be a good time to become Chinese. if it ever admits it has a problem in the first place. If China is to avoid upheaval then it is up to them to change the Party from within. The Party does include millions of enlightened officials who understand that something must be done to avert a crisis.co. 2013 Ric China must have a very severe case of measles then. which consists mostly of practice test papers. The censors will never completely master it. inventors and innovators of tomorrow. It still believes it can solve them itself. I have met some of them. I read about Ai Weiwei. contrarian short fiction China: at war with its history: The Chinese leadership refused to commemorate the centenary of the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty. In the holidays they attend special schools for extra tuition. no one is paying much attention to its ideas and who produces them. which my conscience would find hard. 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. trying in their small way to make China a better place. Obsessed with survival.
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