After nine years working for the HSBC Business School of Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School as a professor teaching international trade, negotiations, and ethics, I am leaving China. In early November 2017, the HSBC Business School informed me they would not renew my contract. In March 2018 they informed me they wished to sever all ties by April 1, 2018.
I leave thankful for the time I spent in Shenzhen, China, and working with elite students in China. Despite technical protections, I knew and accepted the risks of working for the primary university in China run by the Communist Party in China as a self professed libertarian. Though provided an “official” reason for not renewing my contract, my conscience is clean and I can document most everything that demonstrates the contrary should I ever need to prove otherwise. I know the unspoken reason for my dismissal. You do not work under the Communist Party without knowing the risks.
Living in China over the past nine years has been an amazing experience both personally and professionally. Working in China as an academic is like being placed in the greatest economics, finance, and business lab which has been shockingly unexplored. In addition to doing some academic research, I felt blessed to write and speak for different organizations from Bloomberg to Foreign Policy. For someone who suffers from academic ADD (a difficulty spending 3 years on a paper that will appear in print 2-4 years later), I felt blessed to be able to dive into Chinese data everyday exploring aspects that most in my position simply do not get to explore.
Watching the change first hand while diving into the data and being able to write about it has been a profound privilege and honor. I felt a profound responsibility to get it right and tell you what I was seeing and hearing. I still remember the first time I got an email from someone at Bloomberg who would ultimately edit a lot of my work, I thought for sure it was a spam email. I did not even respond for a few days because up until that point I thought my Mom was probably the only person reading my work.
Personally, two of my three children have been born here (one under the wildest of circumstances which I must relate at a later date) and they have grown up attending Chinese language elementary schools. One of the things I am most proud of for my time in China is that my children speak, read, and write age fluent Chinese and whenever they see Chinese children in airports or on playgrounds in Shenzhen interact seamlessly. When I first came to China, my focus was international trade and I wanted to live overseas for a while but knew relatively little about China. Though we told ourselves, we will stay until it was time to go, we probably though we would stay 3 years and leave. Nine years later, our family is glad we came and bittersweet to be leaving.
For many months as I looked at different options, both in China and globally, I struggled with where exactly to go. For personal and professional, I hoped to stay in China, Hong Kong, or Asia. However, after quietly sharing my situation with a small number of people and some things I was told unrelated to my personal situation, it became abundantly clear that I could not stay in China. China has reached a point where I do not feel safe being a professor and discussing even the economy, business, and financial markets. Better to leave on your own terms than being deported after receiving an 8-10 year visa. As a result, I have decided to leave China. I will announce my future plans, projects, and activities later though I am quite excited about where I will be going what I will be doing.
I want to make perfectly clear that any complaints I wrote about in any forum are reflective only of my concerns about the illiberal, authoritarian communist government of China and not the Chinese people. Most professor colleagues, even those I would consider pro-Party, were good colleagues whom I enjoyed talking, debating(yes, it happens behind closed doors and I learned a lot from them) and working with. The Chinese friends I made outside of the work place from people we met in overlapping social circles to neighbors to parents of my children’s school mates were always friendly and helpful ready to assist a foreigner struggling to navigate some of the basics of life in China. My children whether at Chinese language schools or local rec centers, were always treated well and made friends. I will use strong language about the authoritarian communist government but I do not want that in anyway to reflect upon the Chinese people.
Living in China is not without quirks both maddening and amusing. For instance, something as simple as standing in line in many places can devolve into a knife fight given the utter lack of restraint in cutting that is so common. In many parts of China and even new immigrants to Shenzhen, there is no social prohibition on openly gawking at foreigners while pointing and talking about them. One daughter, the less social one, became so off put by the picture taking she would pretend to be asleep as a child in a stroller to avoid the attention. The other more social one would do local interviews in Chinese and frequently pose for pictures. One time, some people were openly talking about us in an elevator. After we left the elevator my eldest was mildly angry about something and when I asked her what the problem was she complained that the people in the elevator kept calling her Snow White. I was able to convince her it was intended as a good thing.
I have been in a fair number of countries and China still remains the more foreign place that I continually have to figure out every day. Other countries have been to in Asia, developed and developing, and even Africa seem less disorienting and culturally dissimilar. This is both exhilarating, exciting, frustrating, amusing and tiring. My wife and I would frequently joke that every day you lived in China you would see something you had never seen before.
One of the most interesting thing to me was to see how my thinking evolved over time in China. Prior to coming, I was and still am a libertarian leaning professor. I had not given a lot of thought to human rights either in the United States or in China. While many are aware of a variety of the cases that receive attention, I think what struck me is how this filters down into the culture. There is a complete and utter lack of respect for the individual or person in China. People do not have innate value as people simply because they exist.
This leads most directly to a lack of respect for the law/rules/norms. One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. Cutting in line is considered extremely rude because there is a sense of fairness and that people have equal rights. In China, line cutting is considered nearly standard operating procedure. There is a common and accepted respect for others even if just it is as simple as standing in line.
In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored. They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.
I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways. Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.
I had a lawyer tell me about the corruption crackdown, and even most convicted of crimes, that people referred to them as “unlucky”. As he noted, there was almost no concept of justice even if people recognized the person had done what they were accused of having done. The discipline stemmed not from their behavior but they were cannon fodder for some game chosen by a higher authority.
China wrestles with these issues like clockwork every few years after a tragic incident goes viral. A common one is when someone is run over by a car and pedestrians just step over the body until a family member finds the body. The video goes viral, prompts a week of hand wringing, and then censors step in to talk about Confucianism and how the economy is growing. There is no innate value given to human life as precious.
A friend of mine in China who is a Christian missionary, told me a story about a time he was invited to speak at the local English corner they had in the apartment development where locals would get together hopefully with foreigners and practice English. He was asked to speak on what is the meaning of life, perfect for a part time missionary. He said he knew what people would say having lived in China for sometime but even so was stunned at how deeply and rigidly held the belief that making money was the entire meaning of life. There was no value system. There was no exogenously held right or wrong, only whether you made money. With apologies to a bastardized Dostoevsky, with money as God, all is permissible.
I could talk at length about that what I have observed, but I am not a human rights expert and what type of cultural changes or evolution it engenders. However, while the well known cases draw attention, these attitudes and responses set the tone for a culture where individuals, respect, and truth mean nothing.
This has impacted my broader thinking in that executive space (thinking of the United States but also applicable elsewhere) is that laws need to be enforced consistently not at the whim of the superior. If the law exists it should be enforced and consistent, otherwise it should be removed. Currently, the United States is going further and further in a direction where laws are applied inconsistently shifting from varying enforcement regimes under different executives. Law is not law if the government can choose whether to enforce it. Law has become the whimsy of sovereigns prone to political fancy.
This applies as well to how everyone is treated. From a President we may have reason to suspect of illegal activity to an immigrant fighting for asylum, all are innocent until proven guilty and treated humanely. I see this pernicious cycle taking place from China in the United States where decency and humanity on all sides (I am not going to apportion blame here) is swallowed by shrill invectives that people then use to justify their own lack of decency in pursuit of whatever they believe to be right. America will not return to its principles by partisans justifying increasingly coarse behavior and rhetoric.
Coupled with the lack of decency is the shift as to what problems people are fighting over. I am amazed when I go to the US or Europe and everyone is talking about how oppressive the government is and this specific policy issue signals the end of democracy if their side doesn’t win and when the next financial crisis will hit. I personally think 2008 created a near social PTSD syndrome across a range of view points. Almost like the wealthy who need therapy despite living materially comfortable lives, Americans are fighting with vitriolic rhetoric in seemingly unnecessary ways.
The people that I respect most are those who can live their convictions. You may be a socialist or a libertarian but have the depth of character to accept the tradeoffs and risks associated with your belief system. Too many people use situational principles that apply to their side when it is beneficial rather than consistently applying a principle that we believe is good for all people. What results from tribal fighting is an erosion of principles where sides fight over who is worse or less bad rather than fighting to uphold principles.
One of the reasons principles matter is that each side feels locked in a death struggle. Principles are unwelcome to many because there are times we do not like those principles or where our side will lose if we abide by that principle. The principle matters more than the short term win or loss. All powers we demand can be used against us at some point. America needs to return to seeking to uphold the highest of principles knowing there will be times our side loses because we chose to uphold a principle. In a democracy, you are going to lose based upon historical precedent, probably about 50% of the time. That is the point of democracy. Rather than delusionaly believing in vast mandates, candidates should recognize that in recent history they have been elected on narrow margins and hew a more moderate path.
I think one of the great things about America that people forget is that it is an experiment. It is an experiment like none other that is truly unique for any major country. There is no country in the world that is in such a state of constant flux and change from a macro-historical perspective. Wave after wave over the past few hundred years of immigrants that drive ambition and innovation are hallmarks.
Any large American city will have a higher foreign born population than the entirety of China. America has one of the highest net migration rates of any major economy and accepts more immigrants than any other country. Of major economies, only Canada and Germany are higher as a percentage of foreign born population share. It is easy to focus on specific incidents that make the situation seem dire, but in reality America remains an enormously welcoming country to immigrants.
I think of an area where I know well academia and start ups. The ability of foreign born academics to rise to a position of prominence or create a start up in China is virtually zero. In the United States, Silicon Valley is rich with a foreign born population or the children of immigrants and the professor and deans ranks are filled with foreign born population. The United States is in a continual state of its own internal flux but that is what the experiment is: a country not founded on blood or ideology but a shared destiny of values and principles that all men are created equal.
The United States has repeatedly failed and continues to fall short of its ideals but has shown a greater sense of self correction than almost any other. In China you cannot talk about most of history, while in the United States there are constant reminders about failures and how to apply those lessons. We must remember that it is an ongoing experiment of values we hold to be self evident, not an already attained ideal but a continual working out of what we believe.
I want to thank a few people for a variety of things. I want to thank my Bloomberg editors Tim Lavin and Nisid Hajari who have tirelessly worked to improve my writing and more concise. I have learned a lot from their notes and pushing and appreciate their patience from a data junkie professor. They do great work to make me sound much better than I am sure I do.
I also want to thank others I have had as editors and learned from. James Palmer at Foreign Policy and Zach Coleman at the Nikkei Asian Review are both long time China and Asia hands who have helped push my writing to become better and express ideas better. Their help has been deeply appreciated.
I want to apologize to those I may have offended on Twitter (with a couple of exceptions). I believe it is important to focus first on the principles, let others have their ideas or viewpoints, and keep it light. If there is one thing the world needs to do more it is laugh. Living through this bizarre period of history requires levity at the absurdity.
I want to laud so many people such as journalists and activist that face real harassment, monitoring, and hurdles everyday in working to uncover what is happening in China and those resisting all encompassing authoritarianism we see in China. One thing I have come to believe deeply is that beliefs and convictions are only manifested in adversity or when tested. Beliefs which only receive beneficial feedback are less convictions and more conveniences. While I do not wish to belittle the challenges others face, journalists and activists in China face enormous daily challenges.
In China, there are very few people who I witness live a testament of their belief. Who knows if the Party member is a member because he believes in Marxism, Communism, Xi-ism, or simply wants a better apartment? Who knows if the person who claims to be a believer in democracy but complies with the Party actually believes that or just tells the foreigner? Foreigners in China in positions of influence who claim to believe in human rights but collaborate with the Party to deny Chinese citizens rights need to answer for their actions. I have little idea what people in China believe but I know that if the Party ever falls, there will be more than a billion more people claiming they were closet democracy advocates.
We should never wish adversity upon ourselves, but recognize that US ideals and values are being tested. I have every confidence that American ideals will come out stronger but make no mistake, it is a trying time. Sometimes you need to be tested in your beliefs to know those convictions hold beyond convenience or benefit.
One of my biggest fears living in China has always been that I would be detained. Though I happily pointed out the absurdity of the rapidly encroaching authoritarianism, a fact which continues to elude so many experts not living in China, I tried to make sure I knew where the line was and did not cross it. There is a profound sense of relief to be leaving safely knowing others, Chinese or foreigners, who have had significantly greater difficulties than myself. There are many cases which resulted in significantly more problems for them. I know I am blessed to make it out.
I leave China profoundly worried about the future of China and US China relations. Most attention here has focused on the Thucydides Trap where conflict results from an established and a rising power. This leaves out probably the most important variable not just the distinction between an established and a rising power but the values inherent within each state and the system they want to project defining relations between states and the citizenry to the state.
The United States under Trump and the GOP is facing a significant test and re-evaluation of its principles. However, I remain decidedly confident in the US to handle those tests. The self correction nature of democracy is on clear display. The best case scenario for the Trump administration is to minimize congressional losses with the very real possibility of losing control of the house. President Trump has lost more in the courts than he has won and is under investigations by law enforcement headed by registered Republicans. His own party has been unable to pass consequential legislation except for a tax cut. While none of this confronts the international challenges facing the United States, it speaks to the evolutionary, self corrective nature of US democracy.
The United States continues to take the largest number of immigrants and rank as one of the most open economies and investment markets in the world, even for Chinese immigrants and businesses. Saying the United States is facing problems is like saying Warren Buffets stock is down a little this year. The United States however must return to its liberal international values. The United States because we lead by example and make the sacrifices from opening our markets regardless of how others behave to making enormous contributions to security in Europe and Asia.
Conversely, China is a rising power but probably more importantly is a deeply illiberal, expansionist, authoritarian, police state opposed to human rights, democracy, free trade, and rule of law. Just as we need to consider the state, speed, and direction of change in the United States, China has been deeply illiberal authoritarian for many years, is becoming increasingly illiberal, and is accelerating the pace of change towards greater control. It both puzzles and concerns me having lived in China for nearly a decade as a public employee to hear Polyanna statements from China “experts” in the United States who talk about the opening and reform of China or refuse to consider the values being promoted. I was left mouth agape once when someone I would consider a liberal internationalist who values human rights informed me he was focused on business and would leave those other issues aside. The values represented by China cannot be divorced from its rise and influence.
The rise of China represents a clear and explicit threat not to the United States but to the entirety of liberal democracy, human rights, and open international markets. We see the world slowly being divided into China supported authoritarian regimes of various stripes that support its creeping illiberalism across a range of areas. The tragedy of modern American foreign policy is the history of active ignorance and refusal to actively confront the Chinese norm or legal violations. The Trump administration is utterly incapable of defending the values and assembling the coalition that would respond to American leadership as they face even greater threats from China.
The concern is not over Chinese access to technology to facilitate economic development for a liberal open state. The concern is over the use of technology to facilitate human rights violations and further cement closed markets. That is a threat for which neither the United States or any other democracy loving country should apologize for.
I should note that I like many other am concerned about the level of government surveillance on citizenry. However, equating Beijing to Washington in many of these specific issues is simply non-sensical authoritarian apologetics. Let me just briefly run through some of the enormous differences. First, some have argued tech firms gather data which is true but does not distinguish what happens to the data. Unlike China, the US government does not have free access to all electronic data. Second, China uses control over electronic communication in vastly draconian cyber dystopia ways compared to the wide range of opinions that are allowed online in the rest of the world. By simple comparison, Winnie the Pooh is censored in China while in the United States the debate is over whether some information should be restricted that is deemed inaccurate. It is nothing less than authoritarian apologetics to attempt to equate the two in any serious manner.
It is profoundly misguided and short sighted to view the rise of China as tension arising either purely from rising economic development in a major state or as a bilateral conflict with the United States. China represents a clear and present threat to liberal democracies, open markets, and international system nor do they even now attempt to hide this policy. These tensions for the foreseeable future will only increase. I do not like the way Trump has handled his approach to China and the very valid concerns he raises about their practices, but I find it even more troubling the near total lack of any attempt to deal with these issue previous administrations and the surrogates have displayed for many years and continue to display. China presents a fundamental threat to the liberal democratic order and the ignorance on display by so many is simply mind boggling.
A few months ago, I had someone I know send me an email asking for a small favor. I did it sent the email back and moved on. Later that day they called me and I picked up the phone expecting questions about the email. They started by thanking me and then said they just wanted to check up and see how I was doing knowing my situation. Even for myself who tries not to get worked up or live in China looking over my shoulder, the worry is ever present. A small gesture that meant a lot.
One thing the electronic world has removed from us a sense of personal intimacy. In reality, President Trump has very little impact on most people’s life. If you’re worried about him fanning flames of intolerance, reach out to a minority colleague or friend and have coffee. If you want Muslims to know they are accepted, invite some over for dinner.
My chosen method is enjoying a cigar and a drink with people where you have conversation and get to know people on a personal level. Not what nationality is on their passport but about them as people. I always ask people where they are from. As an example, most people respond with some broad national classifier like “I’m Indian.” Especially in a place like Hong Kong, this tells you nothing about someone. Where are you from not what is your ethnic classification. An “Indian” could have grown up in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, India, the UK, or Palo Alto. What is your life experience that makes you unique that helps me understand who I am talking to better? That type of knowledge comes from taking a little extra time to identify someone as an individual rather than a set of probabilities attached to group multiple group classifications.
I am excited about where I am heading and different projects I will be announcing in the future. For now, I leave China relieved, content in what I have done, feeling blessed at the opportunities I have received and those that lie ahead.
Except for one more note to drop tomorrow, I’m heading off the grid, travel some in America, read books mostly unrelated to China, and prepare for the next phase. Thanks for listening to my rambling, data obsession, and Dad jokes.