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Think COVID-19 Cramped Your Travel Plans? You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

Oct. 13, 2020
For those who do business in China, decoupling brings 'major headaches.'

“When you mention the word decouple, it’s an interesting word,” said President Trump at a Labor Day news conference. “Whether it’s decoupling, or putting in massive tariffs like I’ve been doing already, we will end our reliance on China, because we can’t rely on China.”

Those of us doing business in China talk about decoupling often. It sounds innocuous enough, but what does it really mean? What does a bifurcated world look like? For me, a frequent traveler to China, an all-out U.S.-China decoupling—financially, economically, technically—triggers panic attacks and sleepless nights.

Here’s a look into the near future of unintended consequences, far-reaching changes, and major headaches that could affect business travelers and tourists alike trekking to China and its surrounding satellite countries. We thought COVID-19 cramped our travel plans? We ain’t seen nothing yet.

Business Not as Usual

For one, Chinese visas will be hard to come by. Just this month, the U.S. State Department rescinded the visas of more than 1,000 Chinese students with alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Trump administration is also considering banning travel to the U.S. by members of the CCP and their families.

This means Vietnam vet Uncle Eddy can’t take his two-week holiday up the Yangtze River, and Chinese history student Manny, whose father works as an engineer at NASA, won’t be invited to Peking University’s Ming Studies seminar. So turn in your Chinese visa application ASAP before the tit-for-tat begins.

Direct flights from U.S. to China? Forget it. Once 14-hour flights from Los Angeles to Beijing will painfully transform into 24-hour ordeals transiting in Tokyo or Seoul as both countries disavow flights into each other’s airspace. I’m not looking forward to staying at that 120-square-foot crawl space called a transit “hotel” near Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

As a riposte to President Trump’s tariffs on China and the European Union’s cold shoulder towards Huawei 5G telecom equipment, China’s state-owned English newspaper Global Times threatened, “China could regulate the purchase volume of Airbus and Boeing aircraft.” Is this just verbal sparring?

Add the CCP’s push to promote its native aerospace industry, and we could soon be sitting on China-made ARJ21 or C919 aircrafts on domestic flights in China. Keep in mind, however, that these airplanes haven’t been FAA-certified yet. I’ll be sure to have my last will and testament prepared before my next domestic flight in China.

More Entertainment Choices

Decoupling isn’t all doom and gloom, though. Flights to China will include more entertainment options as Hollywood begins producing two versions of blockbuster films to conform to each country’s political agenda. Disney learned the hard way with the movie “Mulan.” In the last minute of the end credits, it thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, a region in Northwest China where Uighur Muslims have allegedly been detained in internment camps.

So on my American Airlines flight, I’ll plan to watch the American version of Disney’s live-action remake of “Cinderella,” where the beautiful blonde princess lives happily ever after in the internationally neutral Swiss Alps. Cinderella’s evil stepmother will, of course, be an old, wretched witch of Chinese descent. Then, to be fair, we’ll switch over to China’s “Cinderella” on Air China where Hui Gu Niang (the Chinese name for Cinderella) dons a traditional red qipao (or Chinese dress) and lives atop the mystic Huangshan Mountains in Anhui Province. One of her stepsisters, pejoratively named Karen, is white, middle-aged, and entitled.

The U.S. bans Huawei, ZTE, WeChat, TikTok, and dozens of other companies developing software apps and high-tech hardware. China will act in kind, so leave your Apple- and Windows-based apps and hardware at home, or they’ll be confiscated at Chinese customs inspections. But not to worry, I know a store in Beijing with rock-bottom prices for Xiaomi smartphones, Lenovo laptops, and Huawei wireless gadgets.

Greenback Scalpers

There are rumblings in Washington about prohibiting Chinese companies and banks from using U.S. dollars for international transactions. This may lead to travelers left holding handfuls of cash, unable to change U.S. dollars into Chinese renminbi (RMB) and vice versa. Travelers would have to bring an intermediate currency like Euros or Swiss Francs.

Or worse, this could take us back to the 1980s, when foreigners could only exchange and use specialized “foreign local currency” at government-controlled Friendship Stores or seek unscrupulous money scalpers hiding out under streetlamps near hotels and restaurants. Fantastic—can’t wait to go back to the good old days when I was robbed, beaten, and swindled while trying to swap out a few Benjamins. 

No McDonalds for You!

But let’s get to the decoupling effect that’s really going to hit us where it hurts: no more Big Macs! Yes, we are heading down this path as both countries try to inflict the most financial damage as possible. Brands like Nike, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, KFC, and dozens more make billions in China, and they’ll be missed by both foreigners and Chinese alike.

I, for one, will miss the Fat Burger, an outpost of the California burger chain, just behind the old Beijing Hilton along the 3rd Ring Road. It was The Place to go. The XXXL Triple Kingburger and Maui-banana milkshake are heaven on earth after surviving on airplane meals, hotel breakfast buffets, and factory canteen food for two weeks. I always save the place for the last day of my business trip, making it something to look forward to, a prize of some sort for a job well done. But I’ve heard that many CCP officials frequent the joint, given its proximity to foreign embassies and state-owned companies, so maybe, just maybe, it’ll be left off the blacklist. Hey, even communists like a good hamburger every now and then.

Cooler Heads

Of course, the events I describe may sound too fantastical, too cynical, or too outlandish. After all, we expect cooler heads to prevail. Don’t we? I’m not so sure. Every time I see U.S.-China relations take a dive, things get even worse.

For now, let’s not take for granted our free access to travel to China on Boeing 767 nonstop flights, the use of our iPhones and WiFi in China, and the ability to exchange greenbacks for renminbi without having to skulk down a back alley. Because I’m betting a Triple Kingburger that U.S.-China relations are headed for rockier times.

Stanley Chao is author of “Selling to China” and managing director of All In Consulting, where he assists Western companies with their business in China. He lives in Los Angeles and travels to China frequently.

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