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.