Ron Shine is a pseudonym.
One of the lesser aspects of China’s recent path towards becoming a pariah state is that foreigners in China must question how far can they acquiesce with these developments. We perhaps too easily distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party, the government, and the Chinese people, as though to absolve the latter of the sins of the former. Yet the indications are that the party retains broad popular support, with Pew Global Research finding in 2014 that 92% of respondents had “confidence” in Xi Jinping. How could this be otherwise, with the party-state having monopolies on media, education and political narratives?
But for those people who choose to live in China, particularly at this nadir in the country’s reputation, recent polls have shown that negative views of China have soared around the world. The question keeps on haunting them: are we tacitly supportive, or even complicit?
This is a question that touches me deeply. Earlier this year, I moved back to China after a long spell in the UK. Before that I had lived in three different cities across seven years in China. I love the country, which fascinates, enthrals and sometimes irks me beyond measure.
But since the ascent of Xi Jinping in 2010, matters in China have taken a sharp turn for the worse, both domestically and diplomatically. Everyone will know about the trade war with China. But with its crushing of Hong Kong, genocide in Xinjiang, militarisation of the South China Sea, claiming of extraterritorial judicial powers, arbitrary (or vengeful) detention of foreigners, and destruction of any glimmers of civil society, China has changed. It has moved very far from the opening up we witnessed between 1978, with the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, up to 2008 and the hopeful Beijing Olympics. Since then, the Chinese government has steadily been removing any shackles on its behaviour, quashing any countervailing powers or influences, home or abroad, with ruthless intent.
For someone who loves Chinese history, culture, and people, it has been horribly depressing to witness.
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Yet China has become part of my life in a way I could not have imagined when I first arrived. I only expected to spend only a year there. Now, my time there has enriched me in ways that I could not have imagined. It is the homeland of my wife. Our daughter was born here. My wife and I have sought to ensure she is raised in both cultures so that she can also read and write Mandarin. But there is a limit to the fluency you can acquire outside a language’s natural environment, so we want her to be educated here for a period. Full bilingualism would be a great benefit, for her life and potential career. China is also where my in-laws live, where I still have dozens of friends, where I was married, and where I had some of the most fun, stimulating and rewarding times of my life. I would hate to feel that I had to turn my back on it.
But here I am, intentionally living in a country which is by internationally accepted definitions carrying out a genocide of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. There may not be death camps, but the extermination of the culture and independent activity of that people is the undoubted aim, through enforced behaviour modification, “training camps”, sterilisation, torture (how alarmingly easy that word is to write!), mass surveillance, and the destruction of the physical symbols of the Uighur culture, such as mosques and cemeteries.
To live in China is to accept this. As a foreigner, I’m probably more aware of this than your average native Chinese person, because we have a free press where I come from and because I am choosing to live here. And this is a horrible thing to weigh on your conscience. I do not even have the luxury of thinking that my presence shows a determination to help turn things around, as perhaps Never-Trumper Republican Party members do.
The Xinjiang issue is not a question that can be discussed. Politics, for most Chinese, is a subject best left well alone, but foreigners are even more vulnerable: if employed, we can usually only apply for one-year visas, and minor infractions or bureaucratic ambiguities can be weaponised against you, should the authorities wish to deploy them.
Of course, living in China for me has always meant living under the Communist Party, and with that some degree of moral expediency. The period of opening and reforming was no golden age for human rights either. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the party moved to destroy the Falun Gong spiritual movement, simply on the grounds that it was an independent, non-party movement.
Yet, despite this, during what has been half-jokingly termed the “Golden Era of Hu Jintao”, the party was mostly invisible. Economic growth was the sole measure of social good, and it was boom time. Perhaps it felt like that in Tokyo in the 1950s, or New York in the 1880s. Possibilities seemed to stretch infinitely onto the horizon. Decades of double-digit growth do that to you. And while there were irritating rules and laws, these could be circumvented. The Great Firewall simply required a VPN, which could be easily found for free. Nowadays even the paid ones are not particularly reliable. Visas were almost too easy to acquire – I didn’t even need to show my degree certificate, whereas now I need to have it notarised, legalised and apostilled. (For my first job in China, I didn’t even have a phone interview: I simply sent in a CV then agreed a contract over email to the first employer to make a definite offer.)
Things are different now. The party is serious about tightening the rule of law. This seems only fair, at first glance. Yet the CCP does this not in the pursuit of a better legal and administrative system, but in order to give itself greater reach to pursue its goals. Meanwhile, under Xi Jinping China has been flexing its muscles both diplomatically and internally, turning the party from a theoretical distastefulness to verging on a pariah state, thumbing its nose at international norms and law like a schoolyard bully delighting at throwing his weight around.
Many long-term China residents I knew felt the rising anti-foreigner temperature and got out. I quite understand. But, regardless, I do not want my hatred of the Chinese government to stop my love of the country – the hospitality and kindness of the people, their striving to improve their lives, their commitment to education, their zest and spirit – or to prevent me from seeking to do the best by my daughter.
This last is the key point. Graham Greene wrote in Our Man in Havana, “Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?” I am loyal to love, not to diplomacy. And so, with discomfort, unease, guilt, and a necessary anonymity, I will remain in China. For a time, anyway.
Ron Shine is a writer who has lived in several Chinese cities and three provinces over many years, working in education and media.