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When I returned to China in , 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.
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A deal had been struck. 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 , 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 s 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. Except where there is economic benefit to be had, communities do not act together, and when they do it is only to ensure equal financial compensation for the pollution, or the government-sponsored illegal land grab, or the poisoned children.
Social status, so important in Chinese culture and more so thanks to those 60 years of communism, is defined by the display of wealth. Cars, apartments, personal jewellery, clothing, pets: all must be new and shiny, and carry a famous foreign brand name. In the small rural village where we live I am not asked about my health or that of my family, I am asked how much money our small business is making, how much our car cost, our dog.
The trouble with money of course, and showing off how much you have, is that you upset the people who have very little. But there is nowhere to put it except into property or under the mattress. The stock markets are rigged, the banks operate in a way that is non-commercial, and the yuan is still strictly non-convertible. While the privileged, powerful and well-connected transfer their wealth overseas via legally questionable channels, the remainder can only buy yet more apartments or thicker mattresses.
The result is the biggest property bubble in history, which when it pops will sound like a thousand firework accidents. In brief, Chinese property prices have rocketed; owning a home has become unaffordable for the young urban workers; and vast residential developments continue to be built across the country whose units are primarily sold as investments, not homes. If you own a property you are more than likely to own at least three. Many of our friends do.
When the bubble pops, or in the remote chance that it deflates gradually, the wealth the Party gave the people will deflate too. The promise will have been broken. The people will want their money back, or a say in their future, which amounts to a political voice. If they are denied, they will cease to be harmonious. Meanwhile, what of the ethnic minorities and the factory workers, 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, and you throw in a scandal like the melamine tainted milk of , or a fatal train crash that shows up massive, high level corruption, as in Wenzhou in , and suddenly the harmonious society is likely to become a chorus of discontent.
Unfortunately it has forgotten. The government is so scared of the people it prefers not to lead them. The country is ruled from behind closed doors, a building without an address or a telephone number. The people in that building do not allow the leaders they appoint to actually lead. Witness Grandpa Wen, the nickname for the current, soon to be outgoing, prime minister. He is either a puppet and a clever bluff, or a man who genuinely wants to do the right thing.
His proposals for reform aired in a interview on CNN, censored within China are good, but he will never be able to enact them, and he knows it. To rise to the top you must be grey, with no strong views or ideas. As a publisher I used to deal with officials who listened to the people in one of the wings of that building. They always spoke as if there was a monster in the next room, one that cannot be named. I searched hard for it. It is a chimera. In that building are the people who, according to pundits, will be in charge of what they call the Chinese Century.
Deal with it. It is often argued that China led the world once before, so we have nothing to fear. A key reason China achieved primacy was its size. As it is today, China was, and always will be, big. If you are the biggest, and physical size matters as it did in the days before microchips, you tend to dominate. Once in charge the Chinese sat back and accepted tribute from their suzerain and vassal states, such as Tibet.
If trouble was brewing beyond its borders that might threaten the security or interests of China itself, the troublemakers were set against each other or paid off. The second reason the rightful position idea is misguided is that the world in which China was the superpower did not include the Americas, an enlightened Europe or a modern Africa. China, politically, culturally and as a society, is inward looking. It does not welcome intruders—unless they happen to be militarily superior and invade from the north, as did two imperial dynasties, the Yuan and the Qing , who became more Chinese than the Chinese themselves.
All non-Chinese are, to the Chinese, aliens, in a mildly derogatory sense. It also requires decisiveness and a willingness to accept responsibility. Believing themselves to be unique, the Chinese find it almost impossible to empathise. Witness the postponement of the leadership handover thanks to the Bo Xilai scandal. And the system is designed to make avoidance of responsibility a prerequisite before any major decision is taken.
I know that sounds crazy. It is meant to. It is true. A leader must also offer something more than supremacy. The British empire offered freedom from slavery and a legal system, amongst other things. 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, because it is impossible to become Chinese. Nor is the Chinese Communist Party entirely averse to condoning slavery.
It has encouraged its own people to work like slaves to produce goods for western companies, to earn the foreign currency that has fed its economic boom. How ironic that the Party manifesto promised to kick the slave-driving foreigners out of China.
I was once a plaintiff in the Beijing High Court. I was told, off the record, that I had won my case. While my lawyer was on his way to collect the decision the judge received a telephone call. The decision was reversed. As for resources extracted from Africa, they go to China.
You’ll never be Chinese | Prospect Magazine
There is one final reason why the world does not want to be led by China in the 21st century. The Communist Party of China has, from its very inception, encouraged strong anti-foreign sentiment. Fevered nationalism is one of its cornerstones. The second world war is called the War of Resistance Against Japan.
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. That is the increasing likelihood that there will be upheaval in China within the next few years, sparked by that property crash. When it happens it will be sudden, like all such events. Some commentators say it will lead to revolution, or a collapse of the state.
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There are good grounds. 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. I hope the upheaval, when it comes, is peaceful, that the Party does not try to distract people by launching an attack on Taiwan or the Philippines. Apart from what I hope is a justifiable human desire to be part of a community and no longer be treated as an outsider, to run my own business in a regulated environment and not live in fear of it being taken away from me, and not to concern myself unduly that the air my family breathes and the food we eat is doing us physical harm, there is one overriding reason I must leave China.