My friend Gary Leff penned a thoughtful piece explaining why he will not return to Mainland China, even after pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted. My viewpoint differs from his.
Why I Will Continue To Visit China After The Pandemic
One source of concern for Gary is that China has warned it may detain American travelers in acts of “hostage diplomacy” in retaliation for the United Sates prosecution of Chinese military-affiliated scholars.
That’s a concern. Not going to lie. There’s a number of other concerns as well:
- Persecution of Uighurs – the stories of those who escape from concentration camps are harrowing
- Persecution of Christians – churches are oppressively-regulated and underground churches are raided and disrupted.
- Stifling of civil liberties – punishing dissent and suppressing a free press is a violation of a universal human right
- Violation of Sino-British Joint Declaration – the treaty between China and the UK over Hong Kong has been ignored as China is now exercising an iron grip over the special administrative region
- War Games over Taiwan – the question of invading Taiwan is not if, but when
The list goes on.
I realize that every description above exposes a narrative bias. Chinese defenders would attempt to explain each situation differently.
As for me, I recognize the Chinese system for what it is: antithetical to my own values of individual liberty, but not without scrupulous logic and based upon a carefully-planned push for hegemony.
It is what it is. We are not going to stop it.
I’ve criticized China before on this blog. In fact, I’ve done so above. I stand by those words until someone is able to convince me I am wrong. It’s not an emotional position; I’ll support those opposed to my own values as a lesser of two evils (e.g. Bashar al-Assad in Syria versus a power-vacuum).
Does that make me persona non grata or fearful of visiting China? I sure hope not.
Five years ago I got a sense for “Big Brother” when Ben from One Mile at a Time and I were traveling through Shanghai. We had criticized China Eastern, a state-run carrier, for a dreadful flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai in which the flight crew smoked throughout the flight.
We stayed overnight at the Grand Hyatt in Shanghai and when we showed up at the airport the next day, we were met by officials in the passport control line. It wasn’t just Ben’s notoriety: they came up to me first and called me by name.
I have no doubt that my phones and laptop are carefully scanned when using hotel wi-fi. It’s not defensible, but it is what China does.
Ultimately, our own risk tolerances inform our actions. I have visited 135 countries and have made it a point to visit some of the dangerous ones. I want to see the world and I believe that engagement moves us toward freedom and liberty.
In 2013, I visited Cuba. Yes, you could ague that I was supporting the Castro regime. But I also witnessed a lot: far from the bastion of healthcare and education for all, I saw poverty and desperation. A man begged me for convertible pesos so that he could buy milk for his children. Another begged me to take him with me back to the USA. I told him to fight the good fight there.
I don’t flatter myself into believing that I can change hearts and minds on a large scale, but personal interactions matter. I’ve done business in China for a decade and beyond all the cliches and cultural barriers, it’s just people looking to make a living as I am.
China is rising. China is the future. And we can either keep our distance and hope the tiger will tame itself, or we can continue to engage, engage, engage in hopes that through increased interdependence, we need not be enemies. And ideally, more will call their government to account for suppressing not “American” rights, but universal human rights.
I look forward to returning to China after the pandemic. I hear that life is pretty nice there right now, with virtually no restrictions on daily life. But even as there is a nascent underbelly of suppression that builds upon decades of totalitarianism, my calling as a human is to engage with the world and the people of it. I can’t wait to return.
Will you return to China after the pandemic?