By the time you’re reading this post, I’m on a plane with my wife, bound for the United States, where we plan to live at least for the immediate future. I generally attempt to avoid getting personal with this blog, but in light of some recent events I thought I’d take a moment to explain my reasons.
First, let’s get one thing straight: this has nothing to do with Yang Rui. Yes, he did threaten to sue me and suggest that the police should “investigate my background” after I called for him to be fired in a Weibo post. (For more on his original post, see this). Although the outpouring of vitriol on weibo that followed certainly wasn’t pleasant, none of that had anything to do with my decision to leave, which had been made long before Yang Rui shoved his foot into his mouth (and halfway down his own throat) on weibo. I do plan to address the whole “Yang Rui incident” in a post in the near future, so stay tuned.
Anyway, why am I leaving? Obviously the biggest reasons are personal; I don’t want to get into any of it here except to say that I think it’s what’s best for my family at this particular moment. It’s not anything scandalous or secret, though, I just don’t feel the need to broadcast much about my personal life. However, there are other things that helped reinforce this decision that I think are worth discussing here because they represent major problems China has yet to fully own up to.
[Update: Oh, fine. Since everybody feels it necessary to speculate about my life, here are the personal details, as well as proof Yang Rui had nothing to do with it.]
I like breathing
The first is the air pollution. It’s almost cliche to complain about the air quality in Beijing; it’s terrible and everyone knows it. People here just deal as best they can. Some wear masks outside, and those wealthy enough buy expensive air filters for their homes. Most people just grin and breathe it. I wore masks from time to time, but for the most part, I just breathed it in, too.
Here’s the thing, though: as a foreign citizen, there’s really nothing forcing me to live in Beijing. It is, in many ways, a wonderful city, and it’s probably the most fascinating, exciting place I have ever lived. However, it was also killing me. That’s not really hyperbole; cancer rates in Beijing have risen 60% over the past decade even while smoking rates have remained steady. Studies this spring confirmed a link between air pollution and premature death, even in places far less polluted than Beijing. A World Bank report reportedly found that in China, poor air quality causes nearly a million premature deaths each year. That might not sound like a lot, but some back-of-the-napkin calculations based on China’s death rate show that more than 8% of all deaths in China are premature and related to air pollution.
I’m sure there are plenty of arguments to be made about those numbers, what defines “premature,” and whether or not scientists can really be sure those deaths are all linked to air pollution. But that doesn’t really matter. If you’re in Beijing and you have functioning eyes, you know that things are not healthy. Here’s a picture I took from my apartment last year. It hasn’t been doctored in any way, nor is this even a particularly unusual sight in Beijing (it was taken as part of a series of photos I took each day from the same spot for a separate project).
Looking at that and thinking about your own lungs is bad enough. But thinking about my wife, and thinking about having kids, it gets worse. If my wife were pregnant, would I want her breathing this? Would I want my small child breathing this?
Obviously there are millions of families in Beijing, and they deal. Certainly, we could deal, too. But the question I couldn’t stop asking myself was why should we? On a personal level, it’s a more difficult choice than you might think, at least for me. I like my lungs, sure — they’ve treated me well thus far — but I like Beijing too, and whatever else one might say about this city, it’s never boring. But adding a wife and hypothetical future kids into the mix, the question gets a lot simpler for me. Given the choice to be elsewhere, this just wasn’t the right place to put down deep roots.
Eating is also fun
The other big reason — and this applies to all of China, really — is food safety. Things have simply gotten to the point that it’s impossible to feel confident that what you’re eating is healthy, or even real, unless you’re on a farm. Check out this site, for example, which lists the food items that have been publicly reported in food safety scandals over just the last 8 years. I’ll wait a while for you to finish scrolling through that massive list, which includes basically any food item you can imagine. Oh, each name doesn’t represent just one scandal either, some of the more common food items have scores of reported problems associated with them.
Of course, that’s just what has been discovered and reported publicly. Buying only imported food is a solution, but it’s a highly expensive one; above my means, and above the means of the vast majority of Chinese. And while organic foods are gaining popularity here, they’re also expensive, and there have been scandals involving fake, not-really-organic “organic” food, so even that isn’t entirely safe.
Again, people can and do deal with this. I’ve been eating the food here on and off for four years, and while my stomach has protested from time to time, it hasn’t exploded. Again, though, when forced to wonder ‘why choose to eat this stuff?’ I don’t have a great answer. Not that the food anywhere is entirely safe, of course — certainly it isn’t in the US — but there are plenty of places safer than here. And again, thinking about kids and a family, why choose to put down roots in a country where milk power, in one form or another, seems to make kids sick in a new way every year?
I realize no one really gives a crap about why I’m leaving, but I mention this because I think it’s as significant a problem as economic and social factors when you look at the trend of Chinese elites leaving, or sending their families out of, China. Corruption is a huge problem, sure, and if the economic slowdown continues that’s only going to increase the flow of people leaving. But I think there are probably also plenty of people like me who are less motivated by politics and economics than they are by the safety of their families and/or their fondness for their own lungs and digestive systems.
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.
What does this mean for the blog?
Absolutely nothing. As longtime readers may recall, I lived in the US for part of 2009-2010, and my blogging output only became more prolific during that time. There are some impending changes — all for the good, I assure you — but it’s not quite time to announce any of that yet. In the meantime, regularly-scheduled curmudgeoning will resume as soon as I’ve slept off the last of the jet lag and dealt with the slowly-unfolding nightmare that is my life as the owner of a motor vehicle.
You may also notice a trend back towards more translations, as I tend to feel more inclined to translate things while I’m in the US just to keep my skills sharp…or make them less dull, anyway. However since I’m reading dozens of news articles in Chinese every day for my day job at this point, I make no guarantees with regards to more translations. (The other problem is that a lot of my favorite blogs have really dried up as their owners move to microblogging and weibo or Twitter, and there are already plenty of great blogs that deal with what’s being said on microblogs. Here’s one excellent one.)
Are you coming back?
Yes, obviously. I have written this fairly pragmatic post instead of an emotional, bittersweet farewell piece because I have every intention of returning with some frequency (visa permitting, of course), and every intention of staying fully engaged and more up-to-date than I have ever been before even while living in the US. This, again, touches on the big plans I mentioned above that I’m not ready to share publicly yet, but suffice it to say that China and I will never be strangers.
One Last Personal Note
I do want to take the time to apologize to many of my friends in Beijing, who may find this news a bit of a shock. I was trying to keep my departure plans very quiet on the off-chance that Yang Rui actually did have friends somewhere in the PSB and might attempt to fuck with me or my wife in some way. My email has been hacked before, so I wanted to be a little careful even with that — perhaps a bit paranoid but there were people out to get me. It’s terribly depressing to me that that’s the sort of thing I even had to think about, but if I’ve learned one thing from the whole Yang Rui experience it is not to underestimate that man’s ability to be a petty bully. I wish I had had the opportunity to thank all of you properly for all of your help, and for generally making my life here awesome.
But of course, I will have the opportunity to do that, the next time I’m back in China (or the next time you’re back in the US for a visit). Next time I’m back in the ‘Jing, the drinks are on me.
UPDATE: Because a bunch of people have asked, just to clarify: this doesn’t have any effect on the documentary film project either, we have already completed all the filming for that.