Mark Kitto pronounced very publicly in September that he had fallen out of love with China and was leaving his adopted homeland of 16 years, taking his Chinese wife, Joanna Wu, and their two children, Isabel and Tristan, with him. In a long essay in Prospect magazine (bitly.com/NkYEc3), Kitto painted a dark picture of a country that was no longer the place he became entranced with when he first lived there as a student in the mid-1980s. The pursuit of money and material advancement had replaced community values, and traditional family culture had become a “me” culture. “In the small rural village where we live I am not asked about my health or that of my family. I am asked how much money our small business is making, how much our car cost, or dog.”
He writes of a stock market that is rigged, a non-existent legal system, the “fevered” nationalism the Communist Party uses as a propaganda tool, an elite who funnel their wealth out of the country by questionable means and “the biggest property bubble in history”. Upheaval is coming, he predicts. When it comes it will be sudden, and most likely sparked by a property crash, which will break the social compact between the people and the party: the promise of material wealth on the condition they don’t demand political change. Kitto wrote his article from his mountain home in Moganshan, about 200km from Shanghai. It’s the place to which he and his family retreated after the multimillion-dollar magazine empire he built from scratch was seized by Chinese government officials in 2004. The family run a small coffee shop and three guest houses for tourists; he says one of the reasons for leaving is the risk that the Moganshan business could suffer the same fate as the magazines.
“To be honest, I left China when I lost the magazines. Coming here was my escape,” 45-year-old Kitto tells the Listener via Skype from Moganshan. The Prospect article, with its dire forecast of coming unrest, had been brewing since then. But China sceptics have been predicting for years that social and economic stresses will eventually cause the country to blow: haven’t they been proved wrong by China’s continued ascent? “The longer it takes, the bigger the pop is going to be when it bursts and the bigger the upheaval will be. All fundamental economic and fiscal sense – and history – points to some sort of major change coming. You have an authority – the party – that is dead set against losing its power, which means it will not accept the changes that have to be made.”
DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS
But surely an economy still growing at 7.4% and with a vast trove of foreign exchange at its disposal is well placed to weather any discontent? “Do we really believe the statistics?” retorts Kitto. “I don’t believe the statistics from China. I used to deal with these propaganda people and they would say, ‘We’re going to have 10% growth next year’, and they would make sure when they made their report it would be 10% or a bit more. That’s how it works.”
And the enormous foreign-exchange mountain is part of the problem, he argues. With over US$1 trillion owed to it by America, China is stuck. “If they start taking it back, they’re going to devalue the dollar, which will damage the value of [their remaining investments in US debt].” And while China sits on its enormous foreign reserves, there is “no free health care and an education system that could do with an awful lot of financial support … I think the irony is incredible. Here we are talking about a Communist Party that can’t create a social welfare net; a socialist country where people have no social benefits.”
Kitto says the handling of the Bo Xilai scandal is “a classic example of how the party owns up within certain limits to its own corruption to show the people that it cares … I think on the street your average person is just saying, ‘There you go, another corrupt official; he just happens to be a particularly senior one.’” Kitto’s commentary seems to imply a belief that the underlying motivation of those running China is financial gain, self-aggrandisement or sheer power. Does he really mean to be so bleak? “It’s Animal Farm with pandas,” he shoots back. An “incredible percentage of Chinese officials … have foreign passports, have moved their money overseas, have their children being educated overseas. How can you possibly be a believer in something greater than your own personal interests … when you are trying to leave [the country]?”
Despite the Weibo phenomenon, China has inched no closer to democratic freedoms in his time there, he says. “If anything it’s gone the other way. You can’t have more than four people standing together in Tiananmen Square without a policeman in plain clothes moving you along. And the internal security budget, which is often overlooked, is far greater than the defence budget.” At the same time, the Government allows individuals to get away with all sorts of things – up to a point. “I published a magazine without a licence for seven years with their help. But that’s the point. In places it verges on anarchy.
“But as soon as you come anywhere near to threatening [the party’s] commercial, financial or political power, they will step in. It’s very subtly done, and everything is left deliberately vague, so that if they decide to stop you, punish you or clamp down on you, they can say, ‘See, you crossed that line two months ago and now we’re going to do you for it.’ And they will encourage you, and say it’s all right. That’s exactly what they did with my publishing company – they said, ‘It’s okay, we will look after you’, and then when they wanted to stop me and take it, they could.”
Kitto, who will return to England next year, holds out just a glimmer of hope for a regime he depicts as rotten to the core. “Many very brave Chinese commentators say the same thing [as me]. The only hope is that … those people will survive and come to play a part. The real tragedy is that there are good people in the party and in government – I’ve worked with them. But they are powerless against the system. They are co-opted. Much as they are good and well intentioned and know something needs to be done, the system itself destroys any chance of that.”