Weaponizing Chinese Outbound Travel

The Chinese government has begun weaponizing outbound international travel of its citizens to punish other countries that behave in ways that it does not like. Taiwan, regarded by Beijing as a renegade province, has been at the forefront of this travel weaponization.

This year, the Chinese government announced that as of August 1, travelers from 47 Chinese cities could no longer travel independently to the island. Accordingly, Mainland Chinese visitors to Taiwan fell by 57 percent in September, down to 62,462, according to Taiwan's National Immigration Agency.

Critics regard the move as economic punishment for President Tsai Ing-wen, one of several strategies aimed at reducing her chances of being reelected in polls scheduled for January 11.

But Taiwan is certainly not the only target. While Beijing hasn’t banned travel outright to specific countries, it has issued “risk advisories” that discourage its citizens from visiting largely peaceful, wealthy states like Canada, Sweden, and South Korea over political disagreements in the last couple of years.

Sweden has run afoul of the Chinese government, partly over the kidnapping from Hong Kong of an ethnic Chinese editor holding a Swedish passport, and also over a brouhaha when a Chinese family mistakenly appeared in a Stockholm hotel a day early and refused to leave. When Swedish police were informed, family members ended p on the streets dramatically shouting “murder” and “help.” The incident resulted in a social media campaign which drove down Chinese tourism to Sweden by more than 6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018 after having risen 13 percent earlier.

With the United States embroiled in a trade war with China, the National Travel and Tourism Office recorded 2.9 million Chinese travelers to the US in 2018, down from 3.2 million in 2017. Canada’s mistake was to arrest Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the US’s behest over allegations of violation of US trade sanctions against China. Overnight arrivals by air and sea from China promptly fell in August by 12 percent, pulling down year-to-date overnight arrivals by air and sea by 8 percent.

Behind the perceived effectiveness of discouraging outbound travel from China is the ability of an ever-increasing number of spendthrift Chinese tourists boosting local economies wherever they go. As China’s economy has experienced healthy growth, its outbound tourists spent US$288 billion abroad in 2018, responsible for a quarter of all global tourism revenues. The figure is expected to grow further to US$365 billion by 2025. The number of Chinese traveling abroad will double from the current 149.7 million in the 2020s as the percentage of Chinese citizens with passport increases from 10 percent to 20 percent.

Seeing such figures, it is no wonder that some countries are willing to appease the Chinese government to increase their intake of more Chinese travelers in the future. Hence, countries that seek to draw more and more Chinese tourists should be realistic about future prospects. Even as these countries are compelled to toe the Chinese government’s line on many political issues, they may not even get the fast-growing tourist revenues that they were hoping for by targeting Chinese tourists.

For instance, for the Middle East, unaccustomed to tourism of any kind, Chinese tourism arrivals, according to the Fall 2019 Middle East Forum have been skyrocketing, with numbers increasing in Israel by 41 percent year-over-year in 2018. They were up 47 percent in Turkey. In 2017 Chinese tourist arrivals in the United Arab Emirates exceeded 1 million for the first time in history. The implications are clear.

However, such a sanguine view of unimpeded growth in Chinese outbound travel numbers ignores a fundamental political reality. Under the Xi Jinping administration, the Chinese government has increased efforts to prevent the dissemination of Western liberal ideas. Yet, one of the prime ways for these Western ideas to be disseminated in China is through returning Chinese citizens who have traveled or studied abroad.

For the Chinese government to ensure that “harmful” foreign values are not brought into Chinese political discourse, it makes sense to not only make sure Chinese citizens do not acquire them at home from foreign individuals or media outlets, but also not getting “infected” while traveling to foreign lands and interacting with locals there.

As such, the Chinese government, to prevent its citizens from learning unwanted Western liberal values abroad, would increasingly seek to limit the scope of Chinese outbound travel in the near future. On one hand, as is the case for Taiwan, independent travel, in which travelers have more opportunities to interact freely with locals, would be banned in favor of group travel that allows licensed and “politically correct” travel agencies to closely monitor travelers.

On the other hand, the government could simply make the process of acquiring a passport more stringent, with ever-higher education, income, and even professional requirements that make most of its citizens unqualified and ineligible for a passport. Using such methods, the government could better ensure that only those it wants to travel abroad can travel under circumstances that do not allow them to stray from the standard Chinese political discourse they hear at home.

When Beijing puts such preventive measures in place, the growth of outbound travel will undoubtedly suffer. After a certain segment of the Chinese middle class and elite become frequent international travelers, the increase in overseas travel will flat-line as less-cosmopolitan individuals with international political awareness will be prevented from freely traveling abroad despite having the disposable income to do so.

The Chinese government recognizes that the country’s white-collar professionals and top businessmen think independently and need to be coopted through the ability to venture freely abroad. But the government will see the same being offered to the much less educated and worldly masses a threat to political stability and the continuation of one-party rule.

Future travel restrictions mean that even as the Chinese economy and average disposable income continue to grow, outbound tourism will not grow proportionally. The limits mean that the impact of the Chinese government’s weaponization of outbound tourism will remain limited.

The simple fact is that domestic political restrictions require the Chinese government to ensure that foreign travel remains a privilege available to only a relatively small segment of the “high-end” population that is both capable of independent political thinking and tolerate the existing political framework in China.

The government cannot risk the majority of less well-off citizens heading freely abroad, where they can pick up new ideas that stir up further grumblings at home. That fear on the part of the Chinese government will ensure that the majority of Chinese citizens will be kept from spending money abroad, not because of their lack of money to spend.

Xiaochen Su is a Ph.D. candidate, ITASIA Program, at the Dept. of Interdisciplinary Information Studies of the University of Tokyo in Japan.