Thursday, 25 April 2013

The obligatory "Why I'm leaving Beijing" post.

At the end of May 2013 we'll be leaving Beijing after just shy of five years living here. It has been an amazing time.

To select any five year period from the last 150 years in China, chances are you'd select a lustrum of huge changes. For us, arriving in September 2008, the early part of the financial crisis and just between the Olympics and Paralympics, we were catching Beijing in a strong upswing. I've written about different events throughout the blog at the time they caught my attention, so I don't think there's any point trawling over them again now with the benefit of a fogged memory. Suffice to say, when we arrived there was no doubt the world's eyes were firmly on the Bird's Nest. For a variety of reasons, it feels like the cameras and journalists never packed up and left.

Five years on and there's a climate of uncertainty. Not everyone is benefiting from economic growth evenly (were they ever?) and the costs of maintaining it, whether it be pollution (which has been hard to ignore in Beijing in 2013), food security, or Internet censorship are certainly more visible and arguably getting worse.

Whatever the case, it's certainly time for us to leave.
Having a baby has been the catalyst to move closer to family and certainly to get away from the daily dangers, whether real or imagined, of life in Beijing. We never intended this to be a permanent home and so have no regrets and don't feel particularly pushed out.

I have been thinking about the move, as you'd expect when changing continents, and I want to take the opportunity to try and record the things that I will and won't miss about life in this fantastic city. It has been a massively positive experience, so I want to focus on the good things. But the place is far from perfect, so I'd be doing myself a disservice to ignore the negatives. Anyway, despite agreeing with this article, it's good to have a whine every now and again:

Three things I won't miss:
No.1 The drivers of Beijing.
If anything can be said to have defeated me here it is the driving.
Something I enjoy in most places has become something that leaves me angry and a little embarrassed over my inability to control my rage with other drivers. Suffice to say Caroline generally drives. I think the driving culture is a microcosm of the worst element of life in China. Power/money trumps everything. Doesn't matter if you're in the wrong, if you're the 'biggest' - you win. Perhaps that's the same everywhere, but on Chinese roads it is at its most apparent. And I write this well aware that my status as a foreigner affords me a largely unearned degree of power. I can only imagine how frustrating this must be at the bottom of the pile.

No.2 The pollution (although could equally substitute with food safety).
Doesn't require much elaboration. For reasons attributed to atmospheric conditions, 2013 has been particularly bad, the worst in the five years we've been here. It's difficult to get a conclusive indication of how damaging it is, but since our daughter was born the bad days have felt even more oppressive and while we've taken every precaution available to minimise the impact, it's no fun staying inside all weekend. Leaving Beijing is actually going to hit us in the pocket, my income will be reduced around 25% initially. I'm confident we'll get it back over time, but as soon as it became an equation with the family's health on one side and money on the other, there could only ever be one choice.

No.3 The Intranet.
I think it is a fundamental indicator of the lack of self-confidence of the CPC that they take the greatest aggregator of human knowledge and experience and deliberately break it in order to avoid criticism. I actually have a pretty strong belief that most of the specific examples of 'censorship' (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) are actually just trade barriers dressed up as ideology. As with the physical marketplace, China has done a good job of either keeping foreign companies out, or allowing their access on strictly defined terms in order to protect their domestic competitors. There is an argument for this approach, but whether you support it or not, if you want those domestic firms to go global, you eventually have to take the stabilisers off - preferential access to finance can't last for ever (can it?). Whether the reason is ideological, moral or economic, by stepping on the 'international pipe' China has effectively created an enormous Intranet, which while it doesn't necessarily impact citizens on a daily basis - just about everything they would want is available in some form or another - it again means the ideas, sites and business models on there don't have to compete with the very best and therefore will never become the very best. At a more mundane level it is extremely tedious to have to wait for things to download, VPNs to connect and Google to respond.

If you want to take things to a more meta level, you could argue that the three things I have highlighted as being daily irritants are among the three biggest challenges facing China and its leaders, namely:
1. The Rule of Law, evenly and transparently applied to everyone
2. Reducing the negative impacts of vested interests and corruption
3. How to encourage innovation whilst practising censorship and protectionism

Three things I will miss:
No.1 The Middle Kingdom.
China's name for itself has been pretty apposite recently. Within a week of arriving in Beijing, Lehman Brothers was bankrupt and it was pretty clear (at least to laymen...) that the financial crisis was going to have serious impacts. As economies all around the world started to implement stimulus programmes to avoid recession, China unleashed a $4T behemoth which is still being debated now. I am certainly no professional economist but for most of 2009 and 10 it seemed that China's was the only major economy still recording GDP growth while the US, Europe and Japan all shrank. In the second quarter of 2010, China overtook Japan to become the world's second largest economy. As all of this was happening it felt like China's plan had been forced into overdrive by external factors and that the country was reaching a point it had anticipated, but 5-10 years before they had planned to. I recap all of this to try and capture exactly what it felt like (and subsequently feels like) to have been in Beijing during this period. It was impossible to find any news source that wasn't focused on Beijing and trying to understand the consequences of this accelerated change. To be interested in politics and to have been in Beijing for the last five years has been to see historical events up close.

No.2 The safety.
I don't offer this subject as an apology for totalitarianism. At the same time, I don't want to be a hypocrite and if I didn't mention how safe Beijing is I wouldn't be truly reflecting on our time living here. It may be a reflection of where I have lived in the past, or indeed my naivety, but crime and the fear of crime has been largely non-existent for us over the past five years. In fact I have become pretty complacent as I realised one night, walking home in the early hours, looking at my iPad. Alone. By a canal. Sensibly I wouldn't dream of doing that anywhere else I've lived. I'm not going to start deconstructing why the city is so safe (or at least feels that way) becuase it would be pure speculation, but it's certainly enjoyable not to worry about such things.

No.3 The travel.
We've been North, South and East in China (we'll have to leave West for another time) not to mention taking the opportunity to use Beijing as a base to explore Asia. It has broadened my horizons irrevocably, I can't wait to take the same Wanderlust back to Europe and explore more of that wonderful continent too.

For other positives I could easily mention the career opportunities, the food, the Wall, the relaxed atmosphere, the warm summers, the attitude of people to our daughter and the patience of people as I mangle their language.

But above any individual thing, good or bad, Beijing has been our home. Since I arrived I have become a husband and a father. I've made friends I hope to hang on to for life, changed jobs, gained experience and started a company. It has been an incredible time and for providing the backdrop to all of these amazing things I will always think positively of the city and China as a whole.
I have a feeling it's not over...

Monday, 21 November 2011

132 and out

This is the last post on this blog.
It has probably been clear for some time now that we haven't been updating any more.
This has actually been for a reason, rather than simple laziness or forgetfulness.
The last substantial post we made was after our trip to Burma.
And it was there, in a slightly dingy hotel in Mandalay that we learned of our soon to be expanded family.
Since then, the general Internet has not seemed like the right place to be announcing and discussing the major changes in our lives, so we have reverted to email and even more traditional forms of communication.
The thought is that a new little person deserves the right to privacy and since it is certainly the most exciting thing to happen to us, it's difficult to think / write about anything else.

So after three years recording our time in Beijing, we'll now bow out.
As I've noted before, most visitors to the blog know us in person anyway and therefore you can all expect updates by email, from Flickr and via Facebook if we've got anything generic to say.

Anyone interested in China-related stuff could take a look at my twitter feed @AlwaysNearWalls

Thanks for the interest - who knows, there might be a resurrection when we next move somewhere new.