A Briton’s Bitter Farewell to China Echoes Loudly
By Edward Wong, NY Times, June 14, 2013
MOGANSHAN, China—Mark Kitto is still here. But he is leaving soon, he swears. It will happen sometime this summer, he said, after a final road trip with his family to the outer reaches of the Chinese empire, where two decades ago as a British soldier he joined a 59-day expedition to cross the Taklamakan Desert.
The furniture has already been removed from the home he rebuilt atop this bamboo-cloaked mountain three hours from Shanghai. And his Cantonese wife, Joanna Kitto, is handing day-to-day management of their restaurant and three atmospheric guesthouses to others.
Many foreigners in China think Mr. Kitto left the country last summer. But Mr. Kitto, 46, one of the better-known foreign entrepreneurs of his generation in China, is only now making good on the promise that he set forth in a provocative essay titled “You’ll Never Be Chinese.” It was published in August in Prospect, a British literary magazine, and it was Mr. Kitto’s farewell to a time when he made Shanghai and then Moganshan his adopted homes, all after being born Cornish, growing up in Wales, attending college in London and completing service in the Welsh Guards.
In the essay, he laid out why, after 16 years in this country, he would be heading back to his homeland. He wrote about the hardships of sustaining a business here, of a government that sacrifices the well-being of its people to stay in power and finally of very personal concerns over raising his two children, ages 8 and 10, in China.
"I wanted China to be the place where I made a career and lived my life," he wrote. "I have fallen out of love, woken from my China Dream."
The dream still looks rather attractive from the perch where Mr. Kitto recently had lunch with a couple of visitors—an outdoor table at a local restaurant with panoramic views of the valley. He pointed to a half-finished Buddhist temple below. Local officials were building it to attract tourist revenue, he said, even though no monks lived in the valley.
But back to the essay: “After that article came out, there was quite a lot of reaction,” he said.
Mr. Kitto’s article became widely circulated among expatriates in China, forcing some to question the basic assumptions they had made in trying to build a life here. Others asked whether Mr. Kitto had been unrealistic in what he had expected from China. And what exactly did Mr. Kitto mean by saying “You’ll never be Chinese?” What foreigner expected to become Chinese anyway?
But Mr. Kitto seems to have been a harbinger. In the months afterward, other expatriates wrote essays about leaving China. The departures appear to have accelerated this year, as people who moved here around 2008, in the prelude to the Summer Olympics, cycle out. Foreigners also increasingly fear the pollution in northern China, among the worst in the world, and the shortcomings in water and food safety.
The exodus seems to be particularly pronounced among expatriates who, like Mr. Kitto, are immersed in the literary and journalistic scene. They have all prided themselves on being engaged with China in a much deeper way than your average corporate employee posted here by a multinational company. They are descendants of the kinds of foreigners that the historian Jonathan D. Spence wrote about in his first book, “To Change China”: students of the language, entrepreneurs, explorers.
"I think Mark sees himself in the continuum of British adventurers in China," said Harvey Thomlinson, a publisher in Hong Kong who owns the non-American rights to Mr. Kitto’s memoir, "China Cuckoo."
And Britons do have a colorful history here, whether adventurers like Sir Edmund Backhouse, who claimed to be an insider in the Qing imperial court and a lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi, or the missionaries who built stone villas atop Moganshan in the early 20th century. Each generation of foreigners has a different character, much of it dependent on the changes in China.
"I think Beijing’s entered a new stage in its development," said Alex Pearson, a longtime British expatriate, bookstore owner and friend of Mr. Kitto who is also leaving China this summer. "You have a new kind of foreigner coming, and young Chinese with different goals. It’s a different vibe than when I came here."
TO a degree, Mr. Kitto’s disenchantment arose from business regulations. Mr. Kitto said one of his gripes was that you could never truly build a long-term business here without the fear that officials could take it from you at any time. Mr. Kitto and his wife, for instance, can never legally own the land on which their Moganshan homes stand.
But there were more fundamental issues. “Modern day mainland Chinese society is focused on one object: money and the acquisition thereof,” Mr. Kitto wrote. In another section, he wrote, “The government is so scared of the people it prefers not to lead them,” and “the Party only steps to the fore where its power or personal wealth is under direct threat.”
The overriding reason Mr. Kitto offered for his departure was to give his children “a decent education,” away from the test-oriented curriculums of Chinese schools and their propagandistic history lessons.
Mr. Kitto said he stood by the essay, no matter the controversies, and had mapped out his re-entry to England. The family plans to live in a cottage that Mr. Kitto’s father owned in a rural area of Norfolk that is now popular with vacationers.
In some ways, he said, the place is like Moganshan. “It is very beautiful. It’s quiet except for weekends in the summer,” Mr. Kitto said. And from there, Mr. Kitto hopes to do marketing for local businesses and to edit English translations of Chinese books, as he recently did with “The Civil Servant’s Notebook” by Wang Xiaofang, published by Penguin.
Mr. Kitto said that his wife would continue to oversee the business in Moganshan, and that the family would travel back on occasion—at least for as long as the Moganshan homes stay in their hands.