The China Thrill Is Gone

A recent Twitter thread from Sari Arho Havrén hit home, as it so perfectly captured my own feelings. She tweeted:

Sometimes I miss Hong Kong and Mainland China so much that it physically hurts. 30 years of my life has been tied to China. I have lived in four Chinese cities (incl HK twice). Strings run deep and so does sadness. I don’t know if others remember the exact moment of realisation, the personal critical moment when you realised the direction XJP was taking China, and all started changing. I literally looked at myself in the mirror multiple times asking myself if I was still true to my values or was I selling them in order to go on w biz as usual. I asked other foreigners how they felt, some shared my yet indescribable thoughts, some totally disregarded my sentiments as slander. Doves and hawks were born, we just didn’t know it back then (this was around 2013/2014). It wasn’t an exact day that I would remember (like where you were when Berlin Wall fell or Princess Diana died) but it was a sentiment of gradually growing discomfort that I still haven’t been able to free myself from knowing my feelings are nothing compared to mainland or HK dissidents who had or have to abandon their home.

When Xi Jinping took office in 2013, I was living in Shenzhen. Whenever I read Western media hopes that Xi might potentially be China’s Gorbachev, I recalled one of my courses at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Virginia, which among other topics covered cable-writing (a cable is basically a report, in the State Department’s fusty parlance). In one class, a 2000 cable that came out of the Embassy in Moscow (or possibly the Consulate General in St. Petersburg) was hailed as the epitome of what good reporting from the field looks like. The topic was Vladimir Putin’s recent ascension to power, and the reporting officer made the bold claim (based on a careful analysis of Putin’s track record) that Vova would be a reformer. (To be fair to FSI instructors, I took the course in 2004, when it was not quite as clear that the cable’s predictions were totally wrong.)

This historic cautionary tale, together with comments from my Chinese friends, made based on Xi’s actual background and record, meant I had no expectation that Xi would become a democratic reformer. That said, I felt he would probably be an improvement over drab Hu Jintao, whose vision for China appeared uninspiring. I even posted a syrupy message on WeChat wishing President Xi the best on his mandate and hoping that China would be a better place at the end of it, or something along those lines.

As with Sari, my own disenchantment took place gradually, yet there were a couple of moments that have stuck with me. A few months after Xi took office, I moved to Hong Kong, but continued to travel to the Mainland regularly for business. As happens when you stop seeing someone regularly, changes of all kinds became more noticeable. One evening, walking around Shamian Island in Guangzhou, I saw what can only be described as a 大字报 (big character poster) along the driveway of a government building. Traveling around China, I had seen contemporary examples of old-school propaganda, but never anything like that in Guangzhou, generally seen as a city with little time for ideology. In fact, a tiled announcement calling for compliance with family planning rules in one of the alleys near the Garden Hotel stood out as a relic — to the extent that I made a point of photographing it.

I also photographed the sign on Shamian, but instinctively felt wary of doing so openly. A Chinese friend to whom I sent the image contemporaneously said that it was the sort of thing she had only seen in books. Though I do not remember the exact content of the message, I clearly remember the lingering feeling of unease. It made me glad to have moved to Hong Kong.

A few months later, I was back in Guangzhou. More often than not, I stayed at local hotels during business trips, but this time I was at a new Marriott property in Tianhe, close to where I needed to be on that trip. As I settled into my room, I noticed a copy of one of Xi Jinping’s books on governance on display. Curious, I sat down by the room’s picture window to thumb through it. A note on the book made it clear it was not complimentary, but could be purchased for ¥120, as I recall. No Bible, no Book of Mormon (for which Marriotts are famous), just Xi. Looking out the window, I saw a large digital display affixed to the building across the street. At regular intervals, the 12 Core Socialist Values scrolled down (“Harmony … Patriotism … Rule of  Law …”).

Since my days as a diplomat had long passed, and I no longer got paid for reporting such cutting observations, I decided to put Xi to the side and get some real work done. I booted up my computer and connected to the internet. First, I got a message warning me to comply with relevant rules. Not the standard message you get when you log on to a public network, but one of these ominous warnings from Chinese officialdom. Soon I realized there was no VPN, the first time I recalled that happening at an international-brand hotel. It felt as though a small oasis had been razed over to make room for more desert.

Another measuring stick of how things were changing was the availability of SIM cards. Back in the late 2000s, these were easily purchased from street vendors. But over time that stopped being an option, and you pretty much had to go to China Mobile or other service providers and show your passport. During one of my last trips to China, I was able to pick up a card at Guangzhou East station without any rigmarole, but the next time I went to that shop, I had to get my photo taken and my passport scanned.

Perhaps it was the desired effect, but as time went on I started scaling back my trips to China, to reduce the amount of time I actually spent in-country. During my early days in China, I relished the opportunity to travel. I would schedule trips so that I could stay in new cities for the weekend, or at least overnight. As tired as I was after long days of meetings, I would drag myself out to go for walks, to get a sense of the place I was visiting. This is how I became acquainted with China, pounding the pavement of cities and towns, even when there was not a lot to see in the conventional sense. The search for the rush of exploration was part of what kept me in China for many years, and of what made me move back to the Mainland twice after my initial departure in 2007.

But over time, I became that guy, the one with his suitcase at the back of the meeting room, sneaking out ten minutes before time, rushing to the airport for the flight back to Hong Kong. Whereas during my first two stints in Hong Kong I would happily cross the border for a weekend getaway, or even just to have dinner with friends in Shenzhen, I now needed a good reason (usually business-related) to go back. The thrill was gone.

And then they came for Hong Kong too.

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