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. Fully understand your logic as you wouldn’t want to be stopped because you are on some list of people that posted information against the Chinese government. My daughter has been to China and loved it. However, I likely won’t go for a number of years myself. Doubt I would be hassled (non-Asian w no family or business ties to China and no record of making statements against their government) but just don’t want to support that government and do feel something could conceivably happen. On the other hand I have been to Hong Kong and look forward to going back there. Yes China has clamped down but I don’t personally see the same risk to foreigners being stopped or arrested in Hong Kong. Again, I have no record of public statements and you may feel even Hong Kong is a risk although it seems more likely Hong Kong residents with ties to China or that openly demonstrate against China are the ones being arrested. I’d go to Hong Kong but also not going as long as there are any mask mandates or other COVID restrictions. I’m 5 time vaccinated and have traveled where I had to provide negative tests but not interested in jumping through those hoops when there are so many other places that have no restrictions.

  2. Deng’s adoption of the free market as the economic system did in fact bring the concommitant personal liberalisation that Milton Friedman predicted through its creation of independent centres of power. It happened at a rate unseen in Europe during industrialization there. A quite incredible phenomenon.

    What went wrong was Xi Jinping’s assumption of power in 2012. We are still seeing its manacles being tightened on the population. This implies a number of things. Here are two:

    1) China’s economic growth will be slower than under prior leaders;
    2) The Nixon policy, the unchanging US policy of both parties, of incorporating China into the world economy and the West’s political institutions, had to change. Trump enacted this first, but Democrats have come to see it as well. Hence the relative bipartisanship on China at a time when the two parties agree on less than ever;

  3. I do not plan to visit or stopover in China for several years. Not only due to safety concerns (being detained for some unfathomable reference to an anti-China posting) but also wariness of government inspired prejudice against westerners. The Chinese government is a huge propaganda machine capable of changing policies and public sentiment on a whim. Overall, it’s just too unstable and unpredictable. I have an upcoming stopover in Hong Kong that I feel completely comfortable keeping. I lived there several years. It has long been an international business hub and the social atmosphere is completely different than mainland China.

  4. My sense is that you are way less likely to be seized visiting China than you are to be denied travel/entry to China or detained by law enforcement in the US.

    I am critical of a lot of the G20 governments and all of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa — including the more authoritarian ones, democratic or otherwise — and yet I doubt I’ll have as many problems in most of those countries as I may face in countries where I am not subject to stay limits.

    Rather than seize me as a political bargaining chip or as a piece in some kind of political game of vendetta during a visit, these kind of countries are more likely to just deny someone like you and me a visa or turn us around at the port of (attempted) entry.

  5. The Chinese regime has arbitrary detained foreigners for political reasons and held them without access to lawyers and consulate representatives. Case in point: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from Canada among many others.

    The Chinese regime has proven time and time again they do not respect human rights.

  6. Americans have more risk not being able to access Google in China (they won’t) than being detained. That being said, literally everything you do in China is on camera and your phone’s contents are pretty much uploaded to the master CCP database once you arrive so you take your own chances there. I wouldn’t be concerned about being arrested but you literally give up all of your rights on arrival. To be fair – it’s not much different than other authoritarian countries.

  7. This feels like exactly the kind of long-tail risk to insure against – unlikely to happen, but if it does, then a detainment of undefined length and questionable conditions can really wreck your life. Hopefully the Great Wall and other things will be there when things cool down. But I agree with your risk assessment here.

  8. So visiting/transiting China is off visiting/transiting the UAE is still on?

    The UAE plays some of the dirtiest games on the planet. While they used to be pretty reluctant to do so with perceived European-Americans in particular, they will be less so in the years ahead as their bed buddies are increasingly the Chinese, the Indians, the Israelis, the Russians and other such countries with horrendous treatment of minorities and occupied peoples.

  9. Most disagreeable thing I found here is misnaming Francis Fukuyama…so that’s probably a best case for disagreement on here

  10. Traveled to Bali, Singapore, and Taiwan earlier this year; but definitely would avoid China. In most countries, tourists are tourists (and a desired source of revenue) but in China, everything and everyone not at the top of the CCP is a (potential or actual) tool or pawn of the state. With the greatly increased tensions between the U.S. and China, tis safer for ants to get out from in between dueling elephants.

  11. about 10 years ago i turned down $1,000,000/year tax free from a Global Chinese bank to work in Beijing. the level of air pollution was out right sickening. plus the ever watchful eye of Uncle Mao’s Red Guards following your every move i took less money to work in Tokyo and then Singapore

  12. The joke is this was written by Chat GPT

    Joking aside, halfway through the post the thought that it might have been written by an AI did enter my head.

    Anyway, the first stop in my 2023 Year-end Asian Escapade(tm) will be PVG…perhaps staying on points at WA Shanghai on the Bund or checking out the brand new Conrad Shanghai… 😉

  13. I’ll gladly go back. If I only visited countries whose leaders/government weren’t “problematic,” my travels would be pretty boring.

  14. Kudos to you Gary for speaking up the truth and giving sound advice.
    Ever since the HK Umbrella Movement crackdown, Chinese Government has imposed a National Security Law that anyone speak or act against the regime will be subject to detention regardless the nationality.
    This is a Mafia Mob ruling and not a Western political system that we are so get used to.

    Stay away!

  15. Even being near the top of the CCP is probably not certain protection from the arbitrary authoritarianism of the ruling establishment.

    But let’s keep things in perspective. Even being critical of a Prime Minister in India or can lead to prosecution for verbal defamation and being sentenced to prison in India just for that. Just ask the son, grandson and great grandson of former Indian Prime Ministers. And we also know lèsé majesté rules in Thailand can result in problems for those publicly critical of the Thai king. Where freedom of expression/speech and/or political and socio-economic enfranchisement of minorities is weak, the risks of an outspoken foreign critic ending up in trouble during a visit is worse.

  16. Until 2019 I was a complete Sinophile, still have the extensive Mandarin course I bought and never used. I had business and residency in HKG and was there a lot.
    I have noticed what has happened in HKG, but the whole COVID cover-up did me in.
    I will go back to HKG once more to bid farewell to my friends and visit the places I love, them I’m done.
    I just don’t want to spend my Dollars supporting the CCP, and indeed, if I can avoid buying Chinese-made products, I do.
    I feel sorry for regular Chinese folk frankly. If you ever wonder just what life in China is like, I’d suggest Serpentza’s You Tube channel

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

    When US citizens are detained in Iran, Russia, North Korea, the first question on everyone’s mind is usually “WTF were you thinking going there?” Victim-blaming shouldn’t be a thing but YOU HAVE TO BE AN IDIOT to freely travel somewhere where the authoritarian government wants to arrest you, scare you, or –worse– kill you.

    It takes a brave man to say “I want to go to China. I’ve enjoyed going to China. Now is not the time for me as a US citizen to go to China.”

    Stay healthy, stay safe, stay away from places you can voluntarily opt out of to keep yourself alive.

  18. Gary is just a pure China haters, for him everything CCP did was wrong.

    How many place have you been to China? Go to Beijing/Shanghai/Xian/GuiLin doesn’t means you know China, stay at least 30 days in there and visit some China poor places, watch some China TV shows, then we can talk about China.

  19. In December 2019, pre-COVID, I was flying CNX-PVG-EWR (reward ticket). The first leg from Chiang Mai to Shanghai was on Juneyao and the second leg from Shanghai to Newark was on United (the connection time at PVG was only about 2 1/2 hours). Upon arrival at PVG, immigration made EVERYONE clear immigration, enter China (into the public area at Pudong Airport) and then come back through immigration & customs. In all my years of travels I’ve never seen anything this. Has anyone else?? All the passengers (myself included) were like “WHY??” Again, we couldn’t just transfer normally like one might in SIN, NRT or DXB – all the passengers were forced to enter the country. I specifically recall walking outside the airport for a few minutes, seeing all the taxis, knowing that I could just take one into the city. Never seen anything like that.

  20. My hope is “liberal democracy” doesn’t “triumph” for good. It’s been a disaster for merit and people who matter in society as it continues to uplift the weak and destructive. China is the future. The Chinese way is the future. A future I fully intend to embrace.

  21. While I’d love to visit China, there’s no way in hell I’ll ever set foot there unless and until the Communist Party is gone. If that means I never go, so be it.

  22. Despite knowing “Frank” on a casual basis, the assessment of your “risk” traveling to China seems…way overblown.

    Having been a “resident” journalist in China for a number of years, previously…and even having been detained once on the Tiananmen Square anniversary…I’ve never felt that traveling to China posed an inordinate risk.

    Yes, they now who you are and keep tabs. But in a country of 1.5 billion…they have more important things to worry about than…a blogger.

  23. Come on, Gary. Have you traveled there recently? This seems like a random topic to squak about. I’d be more apt to believe you if you’d actually had a real life experience… Maybe next week you could write about North Korea?

  24. @Gary Leff I know you can’t refute so just label others as CCP gangs, haters is always haters.

  25. What about the 150 million Americans using TikTok already brainwashed by the CCP. There are no plans to help them get over their brainwashing with government sponsored re-education camps. Now imagine these 150 million CCP brainwashed Americans voting in the next election. Scary !!!

  26. I have family living in Taiwan. For the first time in the life of the one who was born Taiwanese, this person is scared. CCP harassment is making life nearly unbearable for many citizens. They have enjoyed a democracy, but CCP wants it stopped. Many Taiwanese believe what was suddenly forced upon Hong Kong, is what will happen to them. They are harassed by China’s warships and fighter jets
    each and every day. The ships are always circled around the island. The people of Taiwan are gentle, kind and freedom loving. The only freedom the people of China have, is what the CCP allows. ALL media is controlled by them, and it serves to brainwash their own people. The current regime has changed it’s own governing rules dramatically to allow sudden and swift action against anyone or any country they deem to. CCP arbitrarily declares sedition on whomever they like, without benefit of any kind of council. These are just a few of the fearful issues about China. So go ahead Chad, talk about how great it is. I’ve been to Taiwan and know exactly how it really is.

  27. I agree on travel to China. I’m sure most Americans can get away with it like they did in 1930’s Germany or other areas just before political pressure got out of hand or war broke out. You give up your privacy and rights to visit there but you do that in many places. The USA isn’t that far behind some of this in a Minority Report kind of way.

    As far as history, it is easy to forget that there has always been relative calm before the storm in many places before the “winds of change” happened. Very few people on December 6th 1941 felt that war was going to break out even in places like Hawaii. Or Poland just before Germany invaded to help kick off World War 2. How about periods like Pax Britannica, Pax Romana, or Hegel’s complacency about the Napoleonic period. I’m sure many who visited or live in Ukraine didn’t think the all-out war would arrive as it did recently. World War 1 wasn’t a surprise to the leadership in Europe but was a surprise to the general public. It only took a few sparks to ignite that fire.

  28. Gary, is Hong Kong too on your no fly/no visit list as a special administrative region of China? I have an award trip there booked for next year.

  29. @DJ – not Gary and obviously he can speak for himself. However, I would assume he may be reluctant to go to Hong Kong due to the fact it is now fully under the thumb of the CCP and he has written numerous articles negative about Chinese policy and leadership so may feel he would be at risk there. IMHO, that doesn’t mean the average American should avoid it. As stated above I would avoid mainland China due to the potential risk and also not wanting to reward the policies of the CCP. However, I have been to Hong Kong and look forward to returning. Yes it is under CCP control but they are much more likely to target protestors and other dissidents than tourists (unless you are on a list of people who have spoken out against them publicly which I am not). Also, I guess you could argue going to Hong Kong provides financial support for the CCP but I see it as supporting the residents of Hong Kong (vast majority don’t agree w CCP). My only issue right now are the remaining COVID requirements. As I recall masks are still required pretty much everywhere and not sure about vaccine/test documentation or any period of isolation upon arrival. Please research all those when making your decision but I personally wouldn’t strike Hong Kong off my list just because of the CCP

  30. Thanks Gary. Germane to many of your followers. I booked CX LHR-HKG-AKL (HKG transit) in June, & was a bit apprehensive even about the HKG transit! Any thoughts/comments?

  31. Gary IS correct – carefully consider any trip to or connection in China. Not much different than in Russia (Evan Gershkovich of Wall Street Journal grabbed yesterday), even LONG before their attacks on Ukraine. You have total authoritarian govts where they can do anything to you at any time and/or make any accusation (spying, saying the words “war” or “Tibet”) they want. Their judicial “systems” are run by the regimes and answerable to their dictators and the corrupt bureaucracies. Not even any attempt to disguise that anymore. If their malevolent govts don’t target you, the endemic corruption might.

  32. I was born in Hong Kong and I doubt I will return to mainland China any time in the future for what they have done to the people in hk. I won’t go into detail since we all seen it though I’m guessing many have forgotten by now since it was pre pandemic. But even more so than traveling I actually stopped shopping on Amazon because I refuse to buy Chinese brand knockoffs of American products. Saving $5 is not worth it to support a messed up govt.

  33. Gary Leff is 100% correct.

    I’m an American that has travelled to China on multiple occasions.
    My most recent visit was in January 2020.
    At the time, due to political protests in Hong Kong, all the tourists stayed away and there were virtually NO LINES at Hong Kong Disneyland. It was a once in a lifetime experience!

    Ever since the Trump administration ended, it seems China is significantly more emboldened on bullying other Asian nations and the USA. I will not be visiting China anytime in the forseeable future. The Chinese are good people. However, the CCP is evil and is unworthy of receiving our tourist dollars. In addition, we must all remember China is infamous around the world for “Forced Organ Harvesting”.

  34. I used to travel to China for work and absolutely loved it. Not anymore. Times are just too strange.

    Hong Kong is now one country, one system, so it’s out too.

    Taiwan could be surrounded with a navy and air blockade in hours. It’s not safe to visit.

  35. This seems like a very frivolous concern to me, particularly for people who live in the United States where arbitrary detention and police abuse is not at all uncommon and which has a far larger percentage of its population under lock and key (3.5 million in prison and another 5 million on probation or parole). China also has far fewer police than the United States, and one is much less likely to come into contact with them on a day to day basis in China, while police in the USA routinely stop and frisk people on the street, and routinely stop drivers, check identity, and often search automobiles. I also don’t think anybody who has been to both places would doubt that government officials in China operate with a level of professionalism and courtesy that is completely unknown in the United States . . . and visitors to the USA learn this before they collect their baggage while going through customs. Those who avoid politics in China – whether Chinese or Foreign – are highly unlikely to encounter any government hassles at all, and China is an incredibly laissez-faire place regarding almost every aspect of life save for heterodox politics – and on that they are extremely strident.

  36. @L3 I would happily live in Shanghai, which I think certainly has a much higher quality of life than any city in the United States. If you haven’t been there, I highly recommend it.

  37. Many seem to think, “…but the US is already so bad/even worse, why should I worry about China?”

    I just want to say there are plenty of places that are much worse than in the US in ways you have never imagined. And you do not want to test it out yourself, unless you have a specific fetish of getting trampled on your rights.

  38. Gary, you criticize China for censorship but then ban comments from me for saying that I’m American and live in China – it is perfectly safe for Americans to visit. The hypocrisy

    Your spread incorrect information on China and ban anyone who knows what’s going on on the ground

  39. @JoeBeijing –

    first I did not ban your comments.

    second, if you don’t understand the difference between a government controlling citizen access to information and a private website removing comments from state-sponsored trolls that genuinely makes my point.

    third, you don’t actually say what you believe is ‘incorrect’ in my information, you’re just gaslighting.

  40. @SoupKuma “I just want to say there are plenty of places that are much worse than in the US in ways you have never imagined. And you do not want to test it out yourself, unless you have a specific fetish of getting trampled on your rights.”

    This is no doubt correct but doesn’t change the main point that the fear and loathing that some Americans have for China is completely unfounded and ignores that Americans and their rights are presently getting trampled upon and being made to pay with prison or intimidation for expressing consent, from having IRS agents visit the home of Matt Taibbi for blowing the whistle on the the Federal Government’s extensive political censorship operations, to Edward Snowden’s forced exile for exposing the crimes and lies of the NSA/CIA/FBI, to the Attorney General of the USA threatening people away from involvement in local school boards, to Julian Assange’s persecution for committing acts of journalism, up to protesters sentenced to life ruining jail sentences by those who have turned acts of protests into “insurrection.” Corporations and universities in the USA have strict speech and conduct codes that people are inordinately fearful of violating and it has become second nature to learn to govern our behavior to comply with imposed cultural norms. The government has legions of bureaucrats enforcing all manner of arcane statutory crimes that are impossible to comply with and enforces them against those it sees as enemies. I could go on and on.

    While the USA is far from the worst country to live in in the world, it’s not remotely the best, and Americans greatly overestimate their own freedom while they simultaneously overestimate foreign authoritarianism and particularly in places like China — and Americans who have had the pleasure of visiting and living there understand this very well. We have grown so used to growing authoritarianism in the USA that we no longer recognize it, but are very quick to take the bait from demagogues distracting us by pointing to China and scaring us about a regime that has vastly less interest in our behavior than the one that actually governs us, and where arbitrary detention and police abuse is vastly less likely for Americans who travel to China, as compared to when they are at home.

    Everybody is entitled to their opinion of course, but to me it’s just silly and not well thought out, and contributes to the atmosphere of xenophobia.

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