I did leave China for other reasons. My wife really wanted to go. At first I didn't, because I had studied and lived there for the better part of a decade (7 years, in Chengdu, Beijing and Shanghai). But the China that I fell in love with as a wide-eyed (and freezing) student in Beijing, as a long-haired backpacker in Yunnan, and as a wasting-away English teacher in Chengdu was not the China I found myself in in 2008. Change was afoot, but it wasn't the sort of change I had ever anticipated. Far from it, actually.
I'm reminded of this because of the controversy that lit up the interwebs yesterday (namely, that google has been aggressively hacked for information, and for that and reasons of censorship is now pondering pulling out of China entirely). This is not surprising to many China observers, and it probably won't do much to persuade the government there to open channels of information. But it is significant because it is perhaps the first major commercial reaction against China's increasing surveilance, censorship and secrecy.
I was affected by media censorship in a closer way than some. Each week I submitted manuscripts to the government agency that censored our harmless city magazine in Shanghai. We could not mention homosexuality or sex or politics or drugs in our text, even in a passing manner. Another media organization i worked for was wrenched from the hands of its foreign founder, because in China the government holds your publishing license.
When I became a freelance writer, I was forced to get a work permit from an ad agency to avoid getting caught writing without proper papers. Deportation was always in the back of my mind, even if I was writing benign pieces about food and travel. Lack of papers was used to threaten me in a few instances, to quell restaurant criticism ('write that and I'll report you to the authorities!)
The Chinese mechanism of foreign press control operates in two effective ways: it forces licensed outlets to watch what they say or risk being squeezed out, and it forces independent writers to censor themselves for the same reasons. I know several writers living there who won't speak out on this issue for their own good. I probably would not have written this, while living there.
In the leadup to the Olympics I had already decided to leave a country that I'd spent many years attempting to understand, finally conceding that I didn't understand much about it at all. When I was a student in Beijing, I imagined a China becoming increasingly free and interconnected with the world. I didn't imagine a China that would appear increasingly isolationist, and occasionally frightfully nationalistic. But that seemed to me what was happening, and so we packed our bags and headed south to Bangkok. During our first week here, the government fell, and I wrote a story about it for The Atlantic. It felt strange and liberating.
I write this from a country that has its own set of problems - from corruption to class division to an impending political crisis of great magnitude. But every single time I walk into a store, and see shelves lined with books and magazines, or attend a lecture or a political demonstration, or page through the Bangkok Post, or sign on to this blog without a proxy, I am reminded of why I moved here, and why I no longer wanted to live there.
I'm not writing this because I hate China. It's quite the opposite, actually. I genuinely love and care about that country and its people. I spent most of my adult life there, and feel just as strong a connection to it as I do to the place where I was born.
Everybody's got problems. But when you don't address them, when you flat-out refuse to discuss them, that's when the shit really hits the fan. And I suspect that some day in China it will, because the relationship between the nanny state and its diverse and emotional people is a dysfunctional one, and it's getting worse. Google has simply shed light on this situation in a way that few other organizations could.
By building these barriers of secrecy and censorship that cause a company like google to pack up and leave, China might just end up tearing itself down.