Hey look! Another foreigner in China has decided to leave the country! This morning, CNN Money published an account by Mac van der Chijs, a Dutch entrepreneur and co-founder of the video-sharing website Tudou, and a person who has decided to leave Shanghai for the unknown wilds of Vancouver, (ostensibly to sit under blue skies and feed Mandarin ducks, as Beijing Cream's Anthony Tao wryly put it).
van der Chijs' reasoning is pretty simple. He's leaving China because a) it's really polluted and b) food safety is questionable and c) doing business in China can be difficult for foreigners. If this sounds familiar, these are pretty much the exact same reasons that Mark Kitto gave in his own farewell essay, published last summer to great fanfare in Prospect Magazine, as well as those of blogger and documentary filmmaker Charlie Custer at around the same time.
Not that any of these reasons are illegitimate; in fact, they're quite understandable to anyone who has spent much time in the country. But the question is this -- why does the departure of a handful of foreigners elicit attention from mainstream media publications? Is there, dare I say, a trend? Are foreigners in China fleeing a sinking ship?
The answer, of course, is no -- the foreign population in China is estimated to be in the high six-figures, and people come and go for a variety of reasons. But the reason the media seems to lap up this type of story reflects a consistently incorrect perception of China -- that it's a fully developed economy akin to the United States, Japan, or Germany.
Of course, China is polluted -- but so are parts of India and Iran. China has a food safety problem, yes, just as many other countries do. China has received enormous international attention for its tight control of Internet speech, but web users in countries like Vietnam endure similar restrictions -- with slower connection speeds. The fact is, life in developing countries all over the world includes challenges that don't really exist in wealthier countries. This isn't an insult to the Chinese people; after all, a great number of financially successful ones -- like their counterparts in India or Saudi Arabia or Brazil -- want their children to be educated in the rich world. It's simply an acknowledgment that, for people with sufficient means, life in wealthier, more developed societies contain an attractive set of advantages.
Does this absolve the Chinese government of its responsibilities to make the country -- and its capital -- more livable? Not at all. Air pollution and food safety issues are grave threats to China's stability and prosperity, and Internet controls entail considerable blow back risk. And surely, China could make conducting business in the country fairer for foreigners without sacrificing prosperity. But it's simply unreasonable to expect China, with a per capita GDP of $5,445, to provide a comparable quality of life for a successful middle-aged family man to Canada, which is almost 10 times wealthier. And this ignores all the other personal, cultural, and financial factors which typically inform individual decisions to move to new countries.
China has problems. But no, it's not a sinking ship. At least it doesn't seem that way to the many foreigners who, as van der Chijs once did, eagerly arrive to launch their professional lives in the country. When wealthy, middle-aged men and women from the developed world begin leaving their country in droves for China, that's when CNN Money should start paying attention.
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