After The Pandemic I Won’t Go Back To China, And Some Of You Should Think About Avoiding It Too

When coronavirus travel restrictions are eventually lifted, we’ll gradually return to travel. But one place I’ve enjoyed in the past is probably no longer on my list: China.

A few years ago one nationally-prominent journalist told me he wouldn’t connect in China. Air China first class award space was readily available for a trip he was working on, but he wouldn’t take it. That makes some sense for a journalist, I think, especially one that has covered pro-democracy protests around the world. But what about the rest of us?

In the fall China has made clear they may detain Americans in retaliation for the U.S. prosecuting Chinese scholars.

Things have only escalated from there.

More than a dozen academics, NGO workers and media professionals CNN spoke to, who in pre-Covid times regularly traveled to China, said they were unwilling to do this once the pandemic restrictions lifted, over fears for their personal safety. Several in the international business community said they would significantly modify their behavior while outside China to avoid attracting the ire of authorities in the country, where they need to do business.

…”It’s not really a question only of, ‘What are the things I have been doing that may have contributed to my getting detained?’ It’s also a question of, ‘What is my nationality? What have the politicians from my country have been saying?'” says Nee.

For the average person the risk is low, but it’s a new area of uncertainty. And I’ve written in support of democracy in Hong Kong and an independent Taiwan. Even if I’m not held or charged with anything, China imposes ‘exit bans’ telling foreigners they cannot leave.

Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) says “American citizens are too often being detained as de factoo hostages in business disputes or to coerce family members to return to China.” The issue may even accelerate as Chinese President Xi Jinping seeks a third term at the Twentieth Party Congress in late 2022.

Maybe you share things to social media from the Falun Gong’s Epoch Times? That alone could create risk.

It’s been 30 years since ‘Tank Man’ stood athwart the People’s Liberation Army of China, in what seemed like an historical moment for that nation. We’ve seen much economic liberalization yet personal liberty has remained restricted.

My formative years saw David Hasselhoff singing “Looking for Freedom” atop the Berlin Wall (1989) and Scorpions singing “Winds of Change” (1991) as the Soviet Union prepared to fall.

It was an optimistic time filled with hope for the future of people around the world who would be able to write their own destinies as they saw fit, and a time when it seemed the U.S. itself might even be inspired by it.

Frank Fukuyama wrote about “The End of History” first as an article (1989) and then a book (1992) speculating that we had reached a point of victory for humanity where liberal democracy had triumphed for good.

It’s always difficult to judge in the moment – regimes look stable until they aren’t, a phenomenon Timur Kuran explained in Private Truths, Public Lies. People appear to support a regime out of fear of revealing their true beliefs, but when the tides turn and it becomes safe as part of a group to express opposition even true supporters act as though they opposed the regime all the time to gain advantage in the shifting world and it suddenly topples.

Yet for now it appears that China is stable, that economic growth there hasn’t brought liberalization but has coincided with growing repression, and that arbitrary detention is a risk for foreign visitors.

I’m fortunate to have had great visits to China over the years, seeing major tourist sites and experiencing amazing meals. There have been a few inconveniences along the way, but it’s easy to circumvent China’s Great Firewall and in recent years I’ve just assumed that any electronic device I bring with me has been compromised. On the other hand there isn’t anyone necessarily interested in spying on me (“security through obscurity”).

Now I don’t think I’ll return for quite some time.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. After this stunt they pulled with coronavirus, costing us trillions of dollars, screw China sideways.

    Never would I visit.

  2. @Jake – I didn’t say “people aren’t going to China” I said “here’s why I am not and you should evaluate your risk”

    And by the way I’ve written all the way along that people would fly the MAX again.

  3. Continuing the shameful Sinophobia Gary, I see. Every week you post hysterical pieces about China backed by little knowledge. Shame on you.

    I’m am American in China. It’s very safe here. I’m done with this blog as there are too many rants on China here.

  4. For when China makes a grab at seizing Taiwan, it gets faster and easier for China over time:

    By some measures, China already has a bigger navy than ours, and that navy is not just for near field defense; it’s also for increased global power projection and to undermine the US as the status quo power.

    As China’s power grows, foreigners in China become ever more susceptible to the worst whims and machinations of the Chinese government:

  5. Do you think it’s still safe to connect on HKG? Not sure when but we have AA miles to burn and I imagine CX awards will be a hot commodity once the world is open. But not if HKG isn’t safe.

  6. @Anthony Clearly you’ve figured the whole thing out. Gary is getting polite pushback on his post not because some of his readers thoughtfully disagree, but because we’re all CCP spies who have been lurking here for the past 10+ years talking about mundane award redemption issues and the relative merits of CX J vs. SQ J, waiting for this moment when we can emerge to argue against this post! I’ll wait by the mailbox for my check to arrive from Beijing.

    @GUWonder Great claims of “genocidal campaigns” demand equally great proof, and not the same bits of tired Islamic Brotherhood affiliated fake news with being disseminated out of Turkey that nobody seems to be able to corroborate despite the fact that it is allegedly affecting millions. The first “genocide” in history where the population of the victims is growing and not decreasing – actually it’s the second. Nobody wants to talk about the barrage of terrorist attacks launched against the Chinese by Islamic terrorists. The claims of Chinese genocide are not only without evidence, but numb us to real genocides like the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia, etc. and dishonor their victiims.

    @Robbo I might go live there if I weren’t living in a country which levies a massive Soviet style Exit Tax on those wishing to emigrate. I’ve long since given up hopes that the US can get off its suicidal path and the passage of the insane “Stimulus” which will reach forward and steal our children’s futures for a (very) few pieces of gold today. One can’t just turn in their passport and leave the USA and unfortunately for me I’m a prisoner of my US nationality as I could never hope to afford to pay the US Exit tax. If you want to chip in I’ll start shopping for my Villa in the French Concession and happily prepare for my anal swab . . . but I might choose someplace warmer and sunnier.

    @pm and LukeVader The argument against Americans traveling to China hits bottom with both of you, concerned as you are with China’s surveillance infrastructure. I’m not sure where you live, but if its the USA (or the UK) you fail to appreciate you own government’s much more massive and elaborate surveillance programs not only of Americans but also of those living abroad. Thanks to whistle blowers like Ed Snowden we know that our government reads our emails, listens to our phone calls, and keeps incredibly elaborate tabs on us. I’m not sure what the Chinese government can do with this information, but I certainly worry about what the US government – which has much greater opportunity to mess with my life – might do with their surveillance. A very poor reason to avoid travel to China.

  7. Lol, as soon as their corporate overlord requests so, OPM flyers from the US will flock to China for work.

  8. @Stu – I cannot say for certain, so far based on what we’ve seen I would connect in Hong Kong unless I thought I was specifically being targeted and I’m probably too low profile for that

  9. For an average tourist China’s risk is not much more or different than many other places. For example simply defacing a Bhat note in Thailand could result in incarceration. Posting a negative review online could get you sued.

    In the US the TSA can put you on an arbitrary “No Fly” list based on arbitrary actions and cannot be reviewed or appealed. They can also force you to provide access to your online accounts.
    Once you leave the airport the police can arbitrarily confiscate any and all of your money possessions under asset forfeiture and you would have to go to great expense and effort to sue the government for return.

    There are always risks everywhere whether you travel or not. In my opinion for a regular, non-activist, non-journalist, non-governmental, tourists the risks in visiting China are no worse than any other country…. Except for the risk of anal probes when flying into Beijing or Shanghai which is 100%.

    Risk of incarceration or not being able to leave? No problem. Risk of surveillance? Please view my 10,000 dog photos. Risk of assault, robbery and murder? Really, have you seen the crime statistics in Chicago? Certainty of 21 day quarantine with multiple anal probes? Pass.

  10. @Mak, the site only shows 50 comments per page. Right now there are 64 total comments, so the default page shows just the most recent 14. There’s a button between the last comment and the “Leave a Reply” box that will take you to the older comments. It’s labeled “Previous Comments”.

  11. I visited Shanghai for 3 nights on a swing from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore. 3 nights was enough for me.

    Also, China has stolen so much American technology they’ve jumped passed other countries. No thanks.

  12. China mandates anal swabs at airports, lies about it then justifies it.

    Last Summer, United was going to restart daily SFO-SIN with a mandatory stop in HKG.

    Pilots, passengers and flight crews protested because we would all have to leave the HKG airport, be tested, wait for results and if one person failed to test negative, everyone would be quarantined.

    I was in HKG February 2020 but don’t know if I’ll ever return to HKG but I will never fly to mainland Communist China.

  13. Ironically, I had several weeks of travel planned in China last April. Obviously, that didn’t happen (although, somehow, I got my ticket on Air Canada refunded!). But I’m with you: I’m not planning on returning at this time. We’ll see how things go. There sure have been a lot of changes (both on the Mainland and in Hong Kong) since my first visit 30 years ago. Impossible to predict the next chapter.

  14. I won’t go to China so long as the CCP is in charge. Plenty of reasons to avoid it – the COVID-19 lies and obfuscation; the persecution and genocide of minorities; what the CCP is doing to Hong Kong (one of my favorite places to visit); rampant pollution; the security risks mentioned in this post (though I’m much lower profile than Gary so probably not a noticeable risk to me personally). There are many things I’d love to see. And I am all for visiting a country with a less-than-ideal government if my interaction with locals might be beneficial in some small way – I don’t see that being the case with a CCP-controlled mainland China though. I hope one day things will be different.

  15. As a Canadian we are even less welcome in China than any other westerners.. Tried connecting in PVG a dew years ago and what a sh1t that was.

  16. I have turned down work offers requiring travel to China, including Hong Kong. Way too dangerous now! I would also avoid North Korea, Iran, and probably (unfortunately) Russia. These countries can jail you to be a barganing chip. Forever.

    Until the CCP stops its genocide and pays damages to the world for its Wuhan Virus, we should also end all trade with China.

  17. In all seriousness, though, any American contemplating travel to China should ask themselves if they, any of their associates, or relatives work in sensitive industries or government, and are likely to be part of the many millions of records allegedly exfiltrated by Chinese government agents. For instance, the 2015 Office of Personnel Management data theft, and any number of credit, medical, travel, social media, and other records, which can of course all be collated and used by the CCP to target and coerce.

  18. Never been to China and never will. And the people who go support all sorts of terrible things.

    Screw China.

  19. I went to China 25 years ago. I did a 2 week tour. No reason to go back. Especially with “anal swabbing”! Hong Kong is to be avoided, not because they will accost Americans. But because the Chinese went back on their word. Since 1996, I have lost count of the times I travelled thru HKG. No more, unless the Chinese change. Which I doubt will happen!

    All these folks defending China as an economic miracle? Please! That miracle was created by undercutting all the other countries in the world. Stealing knowledge and technology in the most ruthless way possible. This is why it was allowed to happen: the West thought that the Chinese would change. That the CCP would give citizens some freedoms if free trade was allowed. The world was scammed by the Chinese. The lesson was hard, but don’t think that the Chinese will be allowed to carry on as usual anymore. Sorry Xi!

  20. I also have written Thailand off my list after being a frequent visitor there. They want to allow Chinese into the country without a quarantine on a special visa. Everyone else is charged huge fees to stay at a designated over priced quarantine hotel and covid tested 2x a week. Spend my usual $10,000 a trip in the Phillapines or Cambodia next trip.

  21. I agree 100% if for no other reason than I don’t want to give them my $$
    How do you feel about HKG??

  22. Life is too short to create so much hatred in this blog. A lot of them even biased and double standard. Maybe you should stop buying made in China products as well if that makes you feel good…

  23. I wholeheartedly agree. From now on, I’m only going to Taiwan and Japan when I visit East Asia. Life is too short to waste time in unpleasant places.

  24. Bravo Gary! This article is well-written! Just like you, I will not be visiting China, especially with the Wuhan virus!

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