Ethan Gutmann's experience with China progressed like an ill-fated love affair: initial attraction, infatuation, disillusionment and, finally, separation.
In 2003 he wrote a book called Losing the New China which reveals the ugly underbelly of the US corporate expat community in Beijing and how it's helping China become exactly what the US -- and Taiwan -- fear most: more repressive and strategically stronger.
Gutmann, who studied international relations at Columbia University and worked as an investigative reporter in Washington, will likely never be granted a Chinese visa again due to the unfavorable light cast on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in his book. But that hasn't stopped him from making trips to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where many are interested in the story he has to tell.
It was Gutmann's first visit to Taiwan back in the early 1990s that originally inspired his inte-rest in Asia. He came to Taipei on vacation to visit his wife, who was studying Chinese. "I got here and she was very busy, so I started walking and I had a street map. Of course I couldn't read anything, but I could match the characters on the street map to the street signs," Gutmann recalled. "I had never seen an Asian economy in action. The constant stimulation of the buying and selling instinct was ... intoxicating and it made me feel optimistic about the world."
In the late 1990s he joined his wife again in Asia -- China, this time -- full of optimism and itching to get in the middle of things. Gutmann soon received a jarring introduction to Chinese "hypernationalism," as he calls it, when NATO aircraft mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, resulting in street protests and a bitterly anti-American climate back in Beijing.
What shocked him "wasn't the anti-Americanism, it was the fact that there was this completely unquestioning attitude in the student body, exactly 10 years after Tiananmen Square," Gutmann said. "The conformity had worked, the propaganda had worked." This experience is what first got Gutmann writing. His account of this period would later become the first chapter of his book. He knew that becoming a whistle-blower would end his prospects in China, and he had just started working for a public relations consulting firm -- a job he did not wish to compromise.
"I had no intention of writing the book until after I came back from China. I wanted to learn about business while I was there ... Over time working as a business consultant I started to live a double life, in a sense: I wasn't thinking about the book exactly, but I was storing up the information ... everyday I'd watch my firm make a compromise or a company make a compromise." For example, the firm worked with an individual who was marketing Internet spy software on the promise that it could be used to catch Falun Gong members.
Gutmann writes of his experience with the firm, "It all looked respectable, yet on my way up, I increasingly felt like a fake. The sense that something was wrong started with my business card ... My title, "senior counselor," was identical to that of two highly respected former congressmen and the former national security adviser to former US president Ronald Reagan. But it wasn't just me. The more I learned about commerce in Beijing, the more I scratched under the veneer of order, hierarchy and sobriety, the more it began to resemble a looking-glass world." The widespread inflation of skills, business failure and systematic use of bribes disturbed Gutmann.