Mark Kitto recently wrote an article in ¡°The Prospect¡± magazine addressing 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 outlines several major factors that have goaded 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 place that lusts for money, is rampant with corruption, clings to xenophobia and nationalism, and is terribly polluted. I have experienced all these things first hand, as a foreigner who has also lived in China, and yet¡ªhow do I know, unflinchingly, that I must return to China and live there for several more years? This is a question I am asking myself lately.
I remember when I first arrived in Xi¡¯an in 2009, driving from the airport to the university where I would spend the next year felt like driving through a fine mist. I arrived in August, and Xi¡¯an has a dry climate. The mist was the haze of pollution that hugs the city with a firm grasp, loosening its grip for short periods of time, only long enough to remind everyone what exactly they are missing (blue skies, vitamin D, clearly defined shadow and light).
Taking my first breath, I felt as if there were small snowflakes settling in my lungs. I am convinced that this was my introduction to the pollution. What some individuals who have not experienced such levels of pollution before may not consider, is that although (once you have lived in a polluted city for some time) it is a subtle experience; it affects many aspects of your life. You don¡¯t sleep as well. You feel sluggish. Your skin is worn; you appear more aged. Due to my time in Xi¡¯an, I came to appreciate the clean air of my home state, Illinois. It is easy to take air for granted; I don¡¯t anymore.
As for modern Chinese urbanites love of money, I also saw examples of this. I remember one instance where I was riding in a car with two other women with whom I had just participated in a modeling event. (While I am not ugly, I definitely do not possess model-caliber aesthetics¡ªbut foreigners are a cool commodity in China so I was invited). The man, an official in the Chinese government, was an equestrian aficionado, so for the afternoon we took pictures with him, everyone sitting on their horses. Returning to the city, it seemed to be a competition between the girls who could come up with a more accurate figure for this man¡¯s net worth. ¡°He owned how many horses?¡± ¡°And he keeps a stable so he has to pay the rent on the property, feed the animals, and pay the stable hands.¡± ¡°Did you notice what kind of car he had?¡± ¡°His watch looks new, and I am sure it¡¯s not his only one.¡± You get the idea. They put Sherlock Holmes to shame with their piercing powers of deduction. This is a skill one has developed.
I have also met China¡¯s fenqings. I once joined a friend and several of her colleagues for hot pot. For the entirety of this one and a half hour meal, the male colleague to my left berated me on ¡°America¡¯s treatment of China.¡± He told me about how America was in the wrong in meeting with the Dalai Lama; how we should remove ourselves from China¡¯s internal affairs and let go of Taiwan; how we should recognize China¡¯s rise and not try to meddle and control it.
I was not able to get a word in edge-wise to mention that America is a very spiritual country, so we may have interest in speaking with various faith leaders. Nor could I point out that our current-day commitment to Taiwan stems from agreements struck by the Carter administration, so in this way we were remaining true to our promises. I also didn¡¯t have the chance to chime in that China¡¯s great rise is, in large part, built on America¡¯s consumption of Chinese goods. And while there is anxiety in the US about China¡¯s rise, I believe that there is also a sense of deep and abiding sense of security that even if America is second economically, it remains (and will continue to remain) a supreme world power. This is due to America¡¯s connectedness with the rest of the world, and its very strong soft power. These points would have to be brought up in another conversation, if there ever was one.
All these examples are not flattering to China¡ªhow can I be so assured that I will go back, that I have to go back, that I really want to go back?
The main thing that is drawing me back is that I want to be a witness to China¡¯s great evolution. Although I am immensely grateful that I was born American, I admire China¡¯s long and winding history and can appreciate the significance of the period it is in now. Just as I would most like to be able to go back to the 1960s and witness America¡¯s Civil Rights movements, I want to see China work out its future. From following the events in China from afar via the news, magazines and weibo, one has the sense that China is on the cusp of change. Protests seem to swarm in scale and actually have an influence on government decisions. The copper alloy plant that was protested in Shifang will not be built; the ¡°national education curriculum¡± will not be implemented in Hong Kong. Also, the Open Government Initiative, initiated in 2009 by the CCP itself, seems to be yielding some tangible progress in citizen access to information.
Another interesting development that draws me back is the appearance of China¡¯s first open public forum¡ªweibo. I am skeptical of the thinking that weibo will usher democracy into China, but I do believe it provides a new avenue for the Chinese citizen to make their voice heard by many. It also provides a platform for relatively unfettered discussion of current events. Although I can observe and participate in weibo from my current American vantage point, I want to be on the ground, in China, hearing the actual xiaodaoxiaoxi (news through the grapevine), and then comparing this information with real-time discussions on weibo.
Contrasting with the sense that the Chinese people are having more say in government decisions and exercising recently granted access to information rights, is the trial of Gu Kailai and the soap opera-esque lead up to the 18th party congress. Gu Kailai¡¯s effusive praise of China¡¯s court system was ludicrous. According to one article, Gu said ¡°In order to uphold the sanctity of the law, 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? This is what I want to know; I imagine going to China would help me figure this out.
Then, the most recent upset (in long list of upsets including Bo Xilai¡¯s fall and Chen Guangcheng¡¯s escape to the American Embassy) to the 18th party congress is Xi Jinping¡¯s disappearance from the public eye. When one contrasts the run up to the US presidential election to China¡¯s leadership change, the differences are striking. In the American campaign season, the presidential nominees make every effort to be seen and be heard. The opposing party digs up every minute detail of their personal lives to share with the American public. For China, we can only say that Xi is presumed to be China¡¯s next paramount leader. Isn¡¯t this a rather large surprise to break to the world¡ªwho exactly will run China, the country that is supposed to own the 21st century? Where exactly is Xi? It seems almost absurd that a person who will potentially wield a great deal of influence over China (and by extension, the world), can disappear for several days. It is worrisome.
These two contrasting forces: one towards openness and public participation, one towards opaqueness and government control, are what pique my curiosity and draw me back to China. Also, in the long view, when I look back on my life, I will be able to say that I saw the world¡¯s most populous nation, the world¡¯s most ancient civilization take its newest form. China is in a transition period, with all the pollution, corruption, and social unrest that change comes with. Won¡¯t it be exciting to see what it turns out to be in the end?
I also have hope for China¡¯s future. There are so many good people in China. People with conviction, people with ambition and creativity, people have suggestions for how to guide their country in the best direction. People who are proud of their country, but hostely recognize its shortcomings.
Another reason I so much want to return to China, is that I know I can always come home to America. This provides me a degree of separation from the turbulences that the Chinese populous has to face. When I lived in Xi¡¯an, I applied this mental trick and found it very effective. When I came across something I found abhorrent (like watching a woman being beat by her boyfriend in the middle of a busy street as the crowd watched and police walked by), I told myself that if I really could not take something, I could go home. No one was forcing me to stay. In the end I wanted to stay, because I was still curious. I still wanted to know more about what China was like, and what it will be like.
I¡¯ll let you know when I find out.
By Marjorie Perry
Any views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not reflect the positions of any other Carter Center staff.
Marjorie Perry is a Program Associate with the China Program. She graduated with distinction from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2009. She has spent four years studying Mandarin and hopes to become an ¡®old China hand.¡¯