Why I Still Love China, Even if It Hates Me

Note: this is a guest post authored by Josh Summers, an American expat who spent over ten years living in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. Although it’s not about Chengdu specifically it’s a relevant topic for all expats in China, and an instructive story. Enjoy.

Historically, China has never been an extremely foreigner-friendly country. A quick look at the headlines this year and you’ll see how this isn’t just a growing trend in China, it’s a growing trend globally. Don’t get me wrong, the Chinese people are amazing and the culture is often very friendly, but the government policies are quite the opposite.

These policies seem to have been designed to discourage foreigners from doing anything other than short-term travel around the country. If you’re reading this and you’ve lived for more than 6 months in China, you’re nodding your head because you know exactly what I’m talking about.

This may sound like the beginning of a disgruntled foreigner “rant” but I promise you it’s not. I still love China despite the fact that I was kicked out of my home last year. I still help hundreds of thousands of people travel to China each year despite the fact that China has never once recognized my contribution to tourism. I even recently published a first-timers travel guide to China even though I know it will never be allowed to be sold in China.

Police in China

No, this isn’t a rant, even though I feel a rant could be justified.

I want to explain why I continue to write positively about China even though the country – or at least the government – hates me.

Hate is a Strong Word

It feels like hyperbole when I tell you that China hates me. It probably would be except for the fact that I’ve had an official literally say that to my face.

You see, for the past ten years I’ve lived in the western region of Xinjiang, a part of China that has been socially/politically unstable and home to some terrible events. The presence of me as a foreigner to witness these events obviously made the government uncomfortable. Additionally, the fact that I was always walking around with a camera and publishing content about the region, well, they really didn’t like that at all.

But truthfully, they never really got around to knowing me or my work. I love Xinjiang, the Uyghur people and yes, the Han Chinese people as well. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve helped over 100,000 people travel to Xinjiang. Yet they told me they hated me and kicked me out the door.

China US politics

I feel like the same thing happens with many foreigners who move to China or even those back in their own country who sit back and form opinions based on the headlines they read. They come to hate China. I know because I see these people post on Reddit or leave comments on my website and social media.

I consider it a form of hate when you loathe a person or group of people based on little personal understanding and a lack of verifiable facts.

China Sucks, But So Does Every Other Country

China’s bureaucracy and visa policies suck, there’s no denying that. Then again, so do the same policies from the United States, my passport country.

This past year, I’ve come to realize that I make too many personal snap judgements based on politics. All it takes is one sad but true story of an act committed by police, a group of people, or a political figure and my previously positive relationships with associated people mysteriously disappears and is replaced by a rising feeling of distrust and hatred.

Han Chinese people do it toward the Muslim Uyghur and Hui ethnic groups. Members of one political party do it to those of another political party. We all tend to do it toward China if we live here long enough.

It’s so hard to separate individuals from their associated groups. It’s difficult to see a country apart from its politics. However, failing to do so could mean we miss out on some incredible relationships and amazing travel experiences.

Why Still Write About China?

Josh SummersPersonal feelings of hurt aside, China is a fascinating country to visit. The local street food is still amazing and there’s still a long, rich history to explore. The culture is unique and the natural beauty outside the big cities can be stunning.

I’ve been criticized many times for writing positively about Xinjiang, a region known for fighting, oppression, and mistreatment of minorities. I understand the reason for the disapproval, but I’ve always held the belief that if I can just convince a traveler to see the place and people themselves, they can develop personal relationships and stories that result in a more accurate picture of the situation.

The same goes for China as a whole. There’s plenty that I don’t like about China and the way that they’ve treated me, but I also know the friends I’ve come to love and the experiences that have enriched my life by traveling around China. I want other people to experience that.

No matter how foreigner-unfriendly China becomes, unless personal safety becomes an issue, I plan to continue to write about China and encourage people to visit.

I know it’s a long shot, but hopefully, China will even begin to change its stance toward foreigners.

About the Author: Josh Summers first moved to China in 2006 with his wife where he has worked as a teacher, studied Mandarin as a student and run his own business. For more than a decade, he has traveled and written about China for the BBC, Lonely Planet, DK and others. His primary writing can be found on Far West China and Travel China Cheaper.

9 thoughts on “Why I Still Love China, Even if It Hates Me”

  1. He seems to confuse himself not being liked to all foreigners not being liked. Nobody else lives in a conflict region and then wants to participate. China has a long history of disliking foreign meddlers.

    “We welcome those foreigners who to come to help us. But the trouble with so many foreigners is that they soon want to dictate. They must remember this is China, and that while their advice is eagerly received, we are the ones to decide if and how it will be used.”

    — Mao Zedong to Western communist Evans Carlson

    • Is that the impression you get? It strikes me more that he perceives that foreigners in China are generally and traditional viewed with reservation and skepticism by authorities, as you say. However interacting with the people of China is a totally different manner, which is really what the post is about.

    • Thanks for the comment, Harland. I’m not sure I follow your line of thinking, though. Are you saying that I meddled in domestic affairs? I lived my life and tried to run a business that benefitted the local economy as best I could. It wasn’t a “conflict region” when I got there, so it seems unfair to judge me based on the fact that it became that.

  2. I doubt China will ever become eager to be “foreigner-friendly”.

    Go to any place which needs your ID checked (e.g. train station), you realise you are a distraction – the odd 1% who needs his foreigner passport details checked and manually typed into the computer instead of having his smart ID scanned, disrupting what is routine for the working staff.

    It’s almost always (over)crowded, busy and chaotic. The hands are already full, without the pesky foreigners.

    China has 1.4billion people with many things happening. It’s far too easy for a “journalist” to cherrypick his stories to fit whatever narrative he wants. I feel the things that go unreported are far more important than the things that make the news.

    • I agree that you feel like your presence is unwanted, or you are at least a nuisance, in certain places in China. Xinjiang is one of those. However Shanghai, in general, is very foreigner-friendly as there are massive crowds of expats, many of which don’t even speak Chinese and get around the city just fine. As to how China will develop its position on expats over time, it’s hard to conclude much but I agree that it doesn’t appear that attracting immigrants is a priority (despite often repeated, government-run high level talent acquisition initiatives).

      As for reporting of facts in China, that is true, but the same could be said of any journalism. They all represent a point of view, not necessarily the larger picture of everything which is happening. Reporting in China is no different, take it with a grain of salt and read as many sources and different perspectives as you can to try to get a comprehensive picture of what is happening.

      • China will remain a place where only top-tier scientists, engineers and product designers are welcome. They will remain highly selective who to let in and allowed to stay, and the places would naturally be the coastal tech and commercial hubs.

        They don’t harbour pretensions about diversity and humanity when it comes to foreigners. It’s explicitly guided by self-interest, and will continue to be.

        The huge population has been both a source of bargaining power (esp when it comes to tech transfer/acquisitions) and a burden (when it comes to control/governance and scarcity of resources).

        The burden is a classic case study of the Malthusian trap. When China says it had not seeked to conquer and expand its boundaries, that’s because they have already dominated and inhabited the most arable lands and the best topography available around for the past 2000 years that allowed the population to explode – everywhere around is made up of impenetrable mountains, tropical diseases, oceans, tundras and deserts. Only the Mongol and Manchu rulers seeked to expand to these places (which are still sparsely populated today).

        Speaking as an ethnic Chinese born and bred in Singapore, but retaining some DNA of the Chinese psyche.

  3. Hi Josh,
    it is nice to read an article from you about Xinjiang. I noticed that farwestchina blog is not updated as often as before. I hope you and your family are safe back in US.

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