I moved to China for no other reason than to leave America. That was back in 2013, when both countries were extremely different places. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my landing in China in the summer of 2013 coincided with the death of QQ, the rise of WeChat, the early days of Mr. Xi, and a great deal of economic transformation.
I remember my early days in the capital well: cruising around the city on a maroon flying pigeon scooter, buying knock-off clothing at Yaoshao Market in Salitun (which has since been torn down), and eating chuaner while drinking warm Yanjing beer with friends late into the evening.
China was a different place back then, both for me and the other legions of expats flooding the city. Anything was possible, or, at least, seemed possible.
To a young man fresh out of university, it seemed as if I had found myself, quite by accident in many ways, in the midst of a modern-day gold rush. Everyone was making money. And if one wasn’t making money, he had some half-baked-get-rich-quick scheme that, if only based on the logic of “because China”, seemed feasible.
Of course, life can’t go on like that forever …
Over the past six years, a healthy dose of reality has been served to such overly optimistic planners. The more prudent have survived and, in many cases, done quite well for themselves. I’ve seen both cases and count myself somewhere in the middle. I never had the gall to go at it completely alone, but I took my share of risks and even got rewarded for a few.
If 2013 marked the beginning of the end of easy money in China, then 2019 is, in the words of President Trump, a whole new ballgame. There are still a plethora of opportunities available, but China’s constant economic progress, technical innovation, and cultural advancement are increasingly dismantling the competitive advantages of multinational corporations and creating China-specific opportunities, less accessible to those without a deep working knowledge of the country.
China in 2019 has moved away from that original, unbridled optimism I found so exhilarating back in 2013. Multinationals are still hungry to establish a presence in China, but also more cautious, and often looking for ways to reduce their reliance on such a volatile and politically charged marketplace, even if it does consist of 1.4 billion potential consumers with rising disposable income.
The Chinese are aware of their over-reliance on US capital, too. Most recently, they have started a special stock exchange for science and technology companies in an effort to strengthen their own position. The Belt and Road Initiative, domestic infrastructure projects, and allowing more risk into the country’s banking system are also examples of how China is consistently taking steps to decouple itself from the US’s global business network.
This decoupling reaches out beyond larger, macroeconomic projects and extends more deeply into the lives of everyday Chinese. As US-produced software eats the world, China’s Great Firewall and protectionism have created a walled-garden, in which it has grown a number of innovative, business species (live streaming and mobile payments are good examples of this).
Whether or not this decoupling was caused by Chinese paranoia or US aggression, it has certainly helped the Chinese in their march towards their own conception of a Chinese Dream. And I have been lucky to see it. The rise of Xi, the proliferation of WeChat, and everything in between.
The big question now has to be, what’s next?
I’m afraid I might not be the person to answer that question, as much as I would enjoy finding out for myself. The truth of the matter is that I am preparing to leave Beijing. After 6 years of steadily working, writing, and thinking about all things Middle Kingdom, I have made the decision to return home to be closer to my family and reconnect with US-related issues.
Fortunately, my job is flexible enough so that I can still take care of my part in another time zone. Even more fortunately, I will be moving to NYC, which although has never been a specific dream of mine, is something to look forward to. There is a certain fluidity between Beijing and New York and I am excited to explore that more.
Beijing has been good to me. It has provided me with the opportunities to immerse myself in an entirely different way of looking at the world, explore a vast country unified by an incredibly complex culture, and, most importantly, make some incredible friends.
I don’t love everything about this city, but, for the past six years, it has been my city. And I’m sure there are things about myself it doesn’t necessarily love either.
So this is my leaving China post. I suppose we all have to write it at some point. I only wonder if it will be my last.