Of Google, bubbles, currency, China and travel

Travel | by David Perry
Posted: January 14th, 2010 | Updated: September 16th, 2010 | Comments
What happens when one of the world's biggest and most innovative companies ceases to kowtow? And what might it mean for the future of travel and expat living in China? We consult our copy of the I Ching and read a few tea leaves… >>>
Google HQ Beijing Speculation—whether it's financial or merely imaginative—is by nature, well, speculative. Many a smashed crystal ball's shards have been swept under countless carpets as the end of the world continues not to come, as flying cars fail to appear in everyone's garages, and as markets fail to behave as various economic gurus promise they will. And speculation abounds this week in the Western media regarding China, first as talk of a China bubble took off following pronouncements by James Chanos, the man who foresaw the fall of Enron and profited mightily from it, and now in the wake of Google's blockbuster statement that it is prepared to shut down its China operations if it can't do business without having its servers hacked into by certain parties interested in obtaining the contents of Gmail accounts belonging to human rights activists specializing in China (Google has determined that the hackers targeted at least 20 other major US corporations as well). But wait, what's all this have to do with travel in the Middle Kingdom (or, as Google might put it, the Meddle Kingdom)? Well, we can only speculate, of course, but changes in the political and economic weather and climate are as important, in their way, as changes in the actual weather when it comes to travel, tourism and leisure, and even more so when it comes to living as an expat. So we're joining the online herd and speculating away, hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. For short-term tourists, not much is likely to change any time soon. So, if you're one of the few non-Chinese travelers excited about, say, World Expo 2010 Shanghai, don't change your plans. Sure, you'll be welcomed to Chinese cyberspace with on-and-off blocks of hugely popular social networking, photo sharing and blogging sites, from Facebook to Picasa (Google's photo site and competitor to Flickr, which was blocked last year but, no doubt due in part to Yahoo's willingness to do things Beijing's way, is available again) to blogspot (owned by Google) to Twitter, but that's nothing new and there are workarounds. It's an annoyance, but any visitor to China realizes quickly that it's worth going to see things like the Great Wall, the famous (and infamous) Tian'anmen Square, the Silk Road or any one of China's thousands of other amazing attractions, even if you can't Tweet about your experience in real time or post your photos to Picasa until returning home. And if they're tech-savvy enough and have done a bit of research, they can do it anyway by proxy, virtual private network (VPN) or mobile device loophole (for example, the Opera browser functions unimpeded by the Great Firewall (GFW) on mobile phones, even though it doesn't on computers). Consider it a blessing—if you can't immediately update your Facebook page and Tweet your every experience, aren't you suddenly experiencing more of the real world and less of the virtual? (By the way, if you're interested in information on proxies and VPNs, the ChinaTravel.net community is producing some excellent suggestions here: Facebook proxy for access in China). In practical terms of personal finance, any Westerners—especially Americans—might want to visit China sooner than later, for the simple reason that the majority of pundits foresee a revaluation of the RMB on the horizon, which would almost certainly lessen the US dollar's purchasing power and make a China trip more expensive. Of course, China may buck conventional wisdom on this one, opting to keep the yuan pegged to the dollar in order to maintain its advantage as an exporter, in which case… well, put on your prognosticator's hat and join the ranks of the speculators. Perhaps Chanos is right and the China bubble is about to burst, in which case travel in China might feel more like travel in Vietnam when it comes to prices (though we doubt many would be traveling for leisure at all in the likely deep double-dip global recession a Chinese economic collapse would likely bring upon us). Principled Western travelers, of course, may wish to steer clear of China for reasons similar to those cited by Google—concern over human rights, censorship and restrictions on freedom of expression, and a desire to avoid overweening control and prying from various quarters of China's complex bureaucracy. However, the moral clarity of such a posture doesn't survive long in the mucky shades-of-gray real world, the one in which Western governments are buying up full-body scanners for their airports, the Obama administration seems quite fond of many Bush/Cheney-era habits of surveillance, and where said Principled Western Traveler is likely to have purchased a major portion of their gear and clothing from companies that have benefitted from China's role as factory-to-the-world. And, if you're concerned about Tibet, say, follow the Dalai Lama's own advice and do visit, on the theory that increased connections rather than isolation is, long term, the greatest way to prepare the way for equitable change. So we say, do visit China, and do talk and write about it as much as possible whenever and wherever you can. Google had it right when they entered the China market, arguing that a compromise in their own principles was worth entry to a market where they not only stood to add to their huge profits but also had a role to play in creating a world where the Chinese people could better understand the rest of the world, and vice-versa, through improved communications and information sharing. And visit because of the Chinese people, who, as in every nation state the world over, should not be confused with their government or its policies (as the rather touching spectacle of Chinese Google fans laying wreaths of flowers on the Google corporate logo in Beijing nicely shows). At this point, the integration of China into the global economy is so extensive that, short of a real global disaster, it's not going to go away, and the best thing for all concerned is to learn, discuss, share and better understand one another—and what could better further such an exchange than travel? Things are trickier for long-term foreign residents of China, of course—the compromises are as much a part of the everyday atmosphere as the pollution, and the hassle of having to circumvent the Great Firewall with a VPN simply to share photos with your family on Picasa or Facebook can be maddening. If you're in business in China, you quickly come to realize that China's vaunted economic achievements are far less than what they could be if actual efficient use of best-in-class online technologies were available without having to deal with the GFW and a reigning Chinese mentality that often tolerates and tacitly—or even explicitly—supports paternalistic and condescending government policies that would have citizens in many other countries up in arms. As they say in China, "this is China" (tautology being a favorite rhetorical device in the People's Republic). But China isn't the world, not even close, and history shows that China's past attempts to turn its back on the world threw it into a destructive, regressive spiral that it's only really emerged from within the last few decades. The most interesting thing to speculate on is just this—what will the relationship between China and the rest of the world be in the next decade of the 21st century? Will China continue on its path of reform and opening and development, or will its reactionary elements seek to control more than they reasonably can, stifling the creative powers of their own huge population? Our advice: Come to China if you haven't yet, as it is indeed one of the most interesting and exciting places on earth. You'll at least have the benefit of your own unfiltered senses to draw upon. And if you don't like it in China—as many foreigners no doubt won't if current repressive trends continue, despite the wonderful qualities of its people and culture—then take yourself, your talents and your money elsewhere. The world is a whole lot bigger than China, as Google well knows.
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