Mark Kitto & Family: "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."
Photo Credit: Eric Leleu
An article by Mark Kitto, in Prospect gives a first-person account of what it is like to live, to work and to operate a business in China as a non-Chinese foreigner. While Kitto's views might not apply to all cases, his views do provide some critical insights into a nation that has undergone great transition since Deng Xiaoping's modernization plan took capitalism as its economic system and grafted it to its prevailing Marxist ideology. What China has become, in addition to an economic powerhouse, is a nation that fears, or at least is uncomfortable with, outsiders—a trajectory common to many successful nations with a history of foreign invasion and control.
Kitto writes about how China has changed in the last 20 years:
If I had to choose one word to describe China in the mid-1980s it would be optimistic. A free market of sorts was in its early stages. With it came the first inflation China had experienced in 35 years. People were actually excited by that. It was a sign of progress, and a promise of more to come. Underscoring the optimism was a sense of social obligation for which communism was at least in part responsible, generating either the fantasy that one really could be a selfless socialist, or unity in the face of the reality that there was no such thing.
In 1949 Mao had declared from the top of Tiananmen gate in Beijing: “The Chinese people have stood up.” In the mid-1980s, at long last, they were learning to walk and talk.One night in January 1987 I watched them, 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.
One man was largely responsible for the optimism of those heady days: Deng Xiaoping, rightly known as the architect of modern China. Deng made China what it is today. He also ordered the tanks into Beijing in 1989, of course, and there left a legacy that will haunt the Chinese Communist Party to its dying day. That “incident,” as the Chinese call it—when they have to, which is seldom since the Party has done such a thorough job of deleting it from public memory—coincided with my final exams. My classmates and I wondered if we had spent four years of our lives learning a language for nothing.
It did not take long for Deng to put his country back on the road he had chosen. He persuaded the world that it would be beneficial to forgive him for the Tiananmen “incident” and engage with China, rather than treating her like a pariah. He also came up with a plan to ensure nothing similar happened again, at least on his watch. The world obliged and the Chinese people took what he offered. Both have benefited financially.
When I returned to China in 1996, to begin the life and career I had long dreamed about, I found the familiar air of optimism, but there was a subtle difference: a distinct whiff of commerce in place of community. 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), sure that I was going to bank a profit, rather than the thrill that something truly big was about to happen. A deal had been struck. 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. The Party said: “Trust us and everything will be all right.”
Twenty years later, everything is not all right.
I must stress that this indictment has nothing to do with the trajectory of my own China career, which went from metal trading to building a multi-million dollar magazine publishing business that was seized by the government in 2004, 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, which in turn has given me enough anecdotes and gossip to fill half a page of Prospect every month for several years. 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, however, contribute to my decision not to remain in China.
During the course of my magazine business, 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. They appreciated my contribution to Chinese media. They proceeded to do everything in their power to destroy me. In Moganshan our local government masters send messages of private thanks for my contribution to the resurrection of the village as a tourist destination, 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, and are only allowed to stay for weekends.
But this article is not personal. I want to give you my opinion of the state of China, based on my time living here, in the three biggest cities and one tiny rural community, and explain why I am leaving it.Well, of course, the article is personal, which does not mean or suggest in any way that it lacks validity, that it lacks veracity, that one person's experience while living as a foreigner in a nation undergoing great change is not authentic, not real, not factual. Quite the contrary; it is very real, because he is a foreigner and as such Kitto can see and feel sense things that locals, fixed in their ideas and thoughts, cannot. Such is why I found this narrative both interesting and essential to read—especially if you have an interest and a curiosity of China, of its people and of where it, possibly, might be heading.
You can read more at [Prospect]