I Won’t Return To China For A Long Time, And You Should Evaluate Your Risk, Too

Tensions between the U.S. and China have risen markedly over the past few years. China has taken full control of Hong Kong, despite commitments it made when Britain handed it over. They’ve made belligerent moves towards Taiwan. Meanwhile, the U.S. threatens to ban TikTok and purge individuals suspected of industrial espionage for the Chinese Communist Party.

I’ve enjoyed numerous trips to China very much. However with the two countries appearing to enter a period of cold hostility, and since I’ve been openly critical of the President Xi and his regime – over human rights, including in both Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as handling of Covid-19 and for a free Taiwan.

Now, with China re-opening to foreign tourism, I see myself as taking a risk if I travel there.

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?

China has openly threated to detain Americans in retaliation for the U.S. prosecuting Chinese scholars. Just last week they raided the offices of a U.S. company, detaining Chinese nationals who worked there.

For the average person the risk is low, but it’s a new area of uncertainty. 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.”

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.

Perhaps AI and Large Language Models represent the next best hope for an end to repression in China. If China wants to compete in this space, they’ll have difficulty doing it behind the Great Firewall. Their tools won’t be as strong as the ones from the West, with access to more knowledge to train on. Is there a stable equilibrium where their AIs can train on unrestricted content, but answers from the AI remain restricted? What about when everyone has AI chatbots on their phones, rather than central servers?

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 for someone like me 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”).

To be clear I am not telling anyone that they shouldn’t travel to China – just suggesting a personal evaluation of risk. For my part I don’t think I’ll return for awhile.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. @mak The fact that people aren’t posting an equivalent list for another country is usually because they know too little about said country, not because the absence of the exact same kind of problems as in the US. (Or that they know but said nothing, which is worse in my opinion.)

    Your post is one such example. I agree with most of your points on how the US is quite terrible, but I respectfully can’t agree that is the full picture here.

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