Former That's Beijing editor Mark Kitto, a Welshman who has lived in China for 16 years, wrote a farewell letter to the country in summer titled You'll never be Chinese. In it he declared: "I have fallen out of love, woken from my China dream," adding he was in no hurry to return with his Chinese wife and two children to the Middle Kingdom. More than three months after the August 8 article was published in British magazine Prospect, however, Kitto and his family are still in China.
His article hit a nerve and caused a social media storm, being re-tweeted 4,500 times and shared on Facebook by 43,000 people. Along with a similar lengthy farewell post by the American blogger behind ChinaGeeks, Charlie Custer, Kitto's feature spawned reports by the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek about foreigners heading for the door. It even inspired two parodies on satirical blog The China Daily Show.
Kitto's article was also translated into Chinese, which the author claims triggered a response in the editorial section of the People's Daily and a visit from the local police in the rural village of Moganshan, a scenic resort town 200 kilometers west of Shanghai, where Kitto still lives.
Staying put, for now
Unlike Custer, who actually did leave China, Kitto is still here. He has not bought a plane ticket, nor even set a departure date beyond his plans for a final, months-long road trip across the country with his family, which should be completed by next summer.
But don't be mistaken by thinking that he is having second thoughts. During a recent talk to a full house at Sanlitun bookstore The Bookworm, Kitto reiterated that he still planned to leave China for good, and definitely, with no plans to return. His only reason for staying is if the country changes completely, a process he expects to be messy, and that he has no desire to stick around for.
"I've made a bit of an industry leaving China," he quipped over a noontime beer during an interview with Metro Beijing. In 2005, the Financial Times implied in an article Kitto had packed his bags and returned to the UK after losing a legal battle with a Chinese publisher to keep control of the stable of expat-oriented magazines he started building in 1997, which grew to include That's Beijing and That's Shanghai.
That misunderstanding suited Kitto fine, as it helped him keep a low-profile when he moved to the mountain village of Moganshan to open a café with his wife after losing control of his multi-million dollar business.
He laid low during his time in Moganshan, writing his memoir China Cukoo (2009), which is now available on Amazon in a new edition, and penning a regular column about village life for Prospect.
The groundswell of attention caused by his August article caught him off-guard because his Prospect columns were normally only available to paid subscribers. Due to the intense focus on China this summer surrounding trials of those linked to the 2011 murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, Prospect decided to make Kitto's swan song available for free.
Countryside cottage future
Kitto was in England when it was published, smoothing the way for his planned move next summer to the village of Fakenham in North Norfolk, where he plans to start a business.
"Breaking into Norfolk will be harder than breaking into China," he admits. Kitto has been taking his family there annually for the last four years to prepare them for living in a cottage he inherited from his father.
"I describe it as a submarine made out of bricks," he said. "My wife says it is too small. I remind her she grew up in Guangzhou with two family members in each room."
Kitto grew up in Wales and never actually lived in Norfolk, where his father spent his final years. Having spent the past 16 years in China, Kitto is, in a sense, immigrating to what looms as a new, unfamiliar country.
Perhaps one reason his article sparked such unease among long-time expats in Beijing is that it confronted them with a harsh reality: one day, they too might be forced to uproot themselves from the home they spent so much passion and sweat adapting to and start all over again.
"You can say [the article] literally hit a nerve," noted Kitto. "It's the unpleasant truth, and [China expats] are pissed off someone is saying it. Maybe they agree with it, but they are uncomfortable at being reminded of it."
Finding Chinese empathy
Kitto agrees that his article reads as an outpouring from a scorned lover who has had his heart broken after a long-term relationship.
"My wife said it sounded bitter. I said, 'Just add one more word: bitterly disappointed.'"
Kitto's article not only ruffled the feathers of foreigners, but also some Chinese. He said provincial and village government officials called the local police chief after it was published.
"[They wanted to know] why was I so upset? What was wrong with life in Zhejiang Province and Moganshan? I wasn't actually there. My wife was summoned to the police station. She was worried she was in trouble. It was concern," he said.
Kitto's article cites many reasons for leaving, including an uncertain regulatory environment for business, environmental concerns, rising materialism and a dissatisfaction with the pace and direction of political reform. But what forced his hand, he says, was his children's education.
His son and daughter - Tristan, 8, and Isabel, 10 - currently spend 11 hours daily at school. This year, Kitto was told Isabel would no longer be doing extracurricular activities for the next two academic years in order to prepare for exams to be accepted into lower middle school.
"My daughter, in particular, is sporty, artistic, and loves singing and dancing. In a Chinese school, she has no chance whatsoever to develop these talents," Kitto said.
In Norfolk, he beams his children "are going to play sport, sing, dance, do art, and have fun." It's also what he tells Chinese people when they ask him why he is leaving.
"Children are the bottom line. It's also a reason Chinese people can understand," he said.