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Reasons to leave China: two prominent and long-term expats have thrown in the towel

Posted: 07/27/2012 5:22 pm

It seems life in China is always a bit of a balancing act: on the one hand, you get valuable international experience, meet amazing people, eat great food, and generally broaden your horizons substantially. Some who come to China find new skills, new careers, even a spouse. Then there’s the downside: polluted air, dangerous food, traffic, visa runs, and more. Usually the benefits of living in China outweigh the costs, but that has changed for a couple of prominent expats who wrote long essays this week about why they’re leaving China.

The first is Charlie Custer, who made his fame by blogging at ChinaGeeks.  Custer has spent several years in the country and was working on a documentary called Living with Dead Hearts, which delved into the sensitive issue of child kidnappings in China.  Still, he’s probably most famous for calling on CCTV Dialogue host Yang Rui to be fired after Yang unleashed a torrid vitriolic rant against foreign “trash” in Beijing. (You know you’re famous in China when Next Media Animation does a video with you in it.)

Still, Custer felt it was time to go, and left behind a blog post which was published after he was already in the sky and en route to the United States.  He said his two primary reasons for leaving are air quality and food safety, issues that became even more pressing as he and his wife discuss starting a family. But those weren’t the only two issues:

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t affected by China’s political situation. For someone who truly believes China would be better served by a system that afforded its people, at the very least, a free press and the true rule of law, this has been a depressing couple of years. Depressing, soul-crushing and occasionally terrifying. But if I’m honest with myself, even with the political situation, I really think I’d be staying in Beijing if I felt like I could breathe safely.

I don’t think I’m alone there. I know plenty of families in Beijing, and it’s not my intent to criticize anyone else here; I’m just trying to explain my own rationale. But these are issues everyone here struggles with. And for those Chinese and foreign who, like me, are lucky enough to have the means to move elsewhere, some are going to make that choice. As the data on pollution gets clearer, perhaps more are going to make that choice. And while China has made some strides in agreeing to report things like PM2.5 publicly in some cities, I unfortunately don’t see the pollution problem disappearing anytime soon.

This isn’t really even China’s fault. OK, yes it is, but it’s also a fairly natural (if disgusting) stage of development. I don’t know if industrial-era London every looked quite this bad, but I gather it wasn’t the cleanest place ever. The thing is, though, would you choose to live in industrial revolution London?

That choice, I think, is part of China’s problem. As Chinese salaries go up and the education system gets better — and here’s hoping those things do improve despite what’s looking like a fairly ugly bump in the economic road — more and more people are going to have the same choice I have.

In fact, at least one other expat has made the same choice. Mark Kitto originally came to China in 1986, and might be known (by the longest-of-long term expats in the PRD) as the founder of the That’s magazine franchise (which includes That’s PRD – formerly That’s Guangzhou). Kitto has had his ups-and-downs in the country, but has pretty much lived here since his college days.  His story of how he lost the That’s magazine franchise has become legendary.

But he, too, is leaving. In a multiple-page story in the latest issue of Prospect, he says:

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.

Unfortunately this story is behind a paywall, although I have read a PDF version.  In it, Kitto describes the air and food quality issues, and also the fact his business – he runs a coffee shop in Moganshan in Shanghai – could be taken from him at any time. His primary concern though, he said, is for his children’s education.  He painted a bleak picture of China’s gaokao system and says the country’s schools are nothing more than testing factories.

He also observes China’s growth over the years; he said in the late 1980s (before Tiananmen Square) there was a spirit of community and optimism that turned to consumerism and individualism following the crackdown.

Kitto and Custer aren’t the first two expats to decide they’ve had enough; the question is whether this is a growing trend. Or, perhaps, China is meant for the young: once a spouse and kids are in the picture, the negative side of living here begins to outweigh the positive and China loses its lustre.

The headline of Kitto’s column does make a good point though. No matter how long we stay, or how good our Mandarin is: “You’ll never be Chinese.”

(The front page image is of Mark Kitto and his family. The image originally appeared in Prospect magazine).


Comment: Yang Rui’s “Kinsley gaffe”

Posted: 05/23/2012 7:00 am

I’ve been closely following the developments regarding CCTV Dialogue host Yang Rui, not least because I was a former editor at CCTV 9 and frequently bumped into Yang while I was in the building. I say “bumped into” because that’s about all it was; Yang never actually entered the CCTV 9 newsroom as far as I can recall and rarely – if ever – spoke to us plebeians. Needless to say, he wasn’t the most popular colleague among both foreign and local staff.

Before I launch into my thoughts on the case, Shanghaiist does an excellent job of summing up where we are:

For those of you that haven’t heard yet (where have you been?), Yang called on the Public Security Bureau in a post on Sina Weibo last week to “clean out the foreign trash” and to “arrest foreign thugs” because foreigners were coming to China to “grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration”.

In his latest remarks to the WSJ, Yang said that while most Westerners are seen by the Chinese as “friendly”, “well-educated and polite,” “some are not,” citing the example of the British man who attempted to rape a Chinese woman on the streets, and Oleg Vedernikov, the Russian cellist whose a-hole moment on a high-speed train was caught on a video by a passenger and put up on the Internet.

Oh, and he also called recently-expelled Al Jazeera English journalist Melissa Chan either a “bitch” or a “shrew”, depending on who’s translating the Chinese term 泼妇.

One of the newest (and quickly becoming one of the best) China blogs,, recently published a post by YJ which asks:

I don’t care whether he is xenophobic or nationalist or racist, as long as he keeps those thoughts to himself. Who the hell cares what this guy thinks? In China we have many so-called journalists like this and they are not the pride of my country. It would be nice if they didn’t go out of their way to put their naïve and simple ideas on Weibo and the Internet.

That’s a good question. Why do we care what Yang Rui thinks? There’s definitely an “a-ha!” moment to what Yang wrote, because I believe there has been collective skepticism about the true beliefs under his faux-Ted Koppel veneer. Perhaps there’s even an element of schadenfreude here, considering Yang isn’t particularly well-liked to begin with.

I would submit that Yang committed a “Kinsley gaffe“, which “refers to a politician inadvertently saying something publicly that they legitimately believe is true but have not fully analyzed the consequences of publicly stating such.” Yang isn’t a politician, but many would suspect the rest of the description fits.

Yang carries himself with a certain haughty assurance and dignified air of authority that comes across as sadly misplaced when one considers he hosts a propaganda program on a Communist Party-funded television channel that very few take seriously. The fact is, he’s not as great as he thinks he is, because dignified television hosts have enough self awareness not to let loose with xenophobic rants on social media.

Make no mistake, if Yang worked for another TV station in another market, he would almost certainly be fired. It’s not just the rant – which was bad enough – but the fact it was targeted at foreigners who, I presume, are precisely his target audience and his pool of potential guests. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

His pathetic climb-down non-apologies also make the situation worse.  He has worked in a coddled and protected environment for so long he doesn’t know how to handle himself when he finds himself the subject of real news. When one says something incredibly incendiary, the first step is a full and unconditional apology, period, even if parts of what was said were accurate. Instead, his subsequent Weibo posts and correspondence with the Wall Street Journal just make him look petulant, and ensures he remains in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

We are witnessing, in Shanghaiist’s words, a “douchebag” come undone. While this can be entertaining, especially for those who may have secretly wished for his comeuppance, it’s beside the point. What matters is the damage he has done to himself, his show, his television channel, and China’s soft power push. For that, he should be fired.

This story was cross-posted on Zhongnanhai


Foreigner-despising Shenzhen woman starts striptease on the street

Posted: 05/21/2012 4:09 pm

The woman dances in Luohu

Tension between foreigners and local Chinese has been rising of late.  First, there was a British guy caught on tape trying to molest a Chinese woman (then beaten), a foreign cellist berating a woman in Chinese, Beijing’s 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners, and CCTV News host Yang Rui’s vitriolic rant against foreigners on his Weibo account.

Things haven’t been quite so heated down here (things get a bit more normal the further one gets from Beijing).  Still, a Shenzhen woman we told you about earlier, who called for Chinese women to avoid dating and marrying foreign men, has again drawn attention to herself.  This time, she appeared near Grand Theater Subway Station dancing while stripping to her underwear. The woman did the dance around 4 p.m. on May 5 near the entrance of Shenzhen Book City in Luohu District.

She had an mp3 player that played the dance song “Zui Xuan Minzufeng”. Next to her was a sign that had a picture of herself entwined with a foreign man, below which were the words, “I want my chest to be bigger, I want my skin to be paler, I want to be thinner.” The writing goes on to explain that she is looking for people to help her become a new person, and she wants to recover from her failed relationship with the foreigner.

She urged onlookers to contact her, and had her mobile phone number printed on the sign.

Many passers-by gathered to watch her dance, but netizens have expressed contempt for the woman. A netizen named Peng Fei said he supported the foreigner’s decision to leave her. Another named Grey Autumn commented on how unattractive she was.

We’re not sure how stripping in public will help her cause, but we are starting to see why her foreign ex-husband may have left her.


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