I’ve lived in China for most of this century. It was on Feb 20, 2020, that I left for Vienna, Austria, when the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming a serious health threat globally. For much of the time that I have lived in Beijing and traveled around China, millions of foreign tourists have visited the country. They added to China’s international flavor, and were a sign of the renewed internationalization of China — similar to that at the height of the ancient Silk Road centuries ago.
Now that I’ve returned to China after three years and eight months, some things seem different here, hopefully temporarily. Virtually no foreign tourists can be seen at the moment. And it’s really important that they return as soon as possible, not merely for economic reasons, but because we need to build bridges to and from China with other countries. People-to-people exchange is the best form of human interaction to prove that we are much more alike, than we are different.
China’s former premier Zhou Enlai advocated something called “folk diplomacy”, a parallel track to the formal diplomacy of embassies and ambassadors. That was three-quarters of a century ago, but it’s needed now more than ever, because we need to rebuild and strengthen bridges that have been destroyed by the pandemic and the vicious foreign political forces arrayed against China.
After my return to China, I have experienced many positive surprises. Despite China’s huge population, every place I visited was cleaner than before. Beijing taxis, which at one time were small, poorly maintained and uncomfortable, are now more modern and environmentally sustainable. Also, the subways are cleaner and more efficient. Many people offered me, a 77 — year-old man, a seat, often asking my age. I imagine that they were doubly surprised — to not only see a foreigner in their midst at rush hour, but also one who might be too old to commute alone freely.
It’s rare to find a Beijing taxi driver who speaks English, but after my return I spent half an hour of quality time in active conversation with a young driver who, despite saying he was very shy, opened up and told me about how proud he felt to serve me and other customers. Although, I’ve met my share of presidents and Hollywood celebrities, it was this warm and moving experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Another surprise is how cheap many things are in China compared with the European Union or the United States. Visiting the Silk Street Market in Beijing used to be daunting due to the massive crowd. Sadly, the market was empty this time despite the higher-quality goods and lower prices.
But why are there still so few foreign visitors in China? One reason is economic. Although the frequency of flights is increasing, there are fewer flights than before, especially non-stop flights from and to Western cities, which means flights are still much more expensive than before. Blame market forces, and supply and demand for that.
But another reason is political. Western governments have falsely painted an ugly picture of China and its people. I was worried that this would affect the friendliness of the Chinese people. I was prepared for some hostility but, in fact, the opposite happened.
When I first came to China in 1988, even in Beijing and Shanghai, but more so in smaller cities and villages, foreigners were such a rarity that Chinese people of all ages used to line up to take pictures with me and with other foreign visitors. Today, it’s déjàvu, because for the first time in two decades, everywhere I went in both Beijing and Shandong province, people queued up to take selfies with me. Even when people learned that I was American, they were warm and welcoming.
I am pleasantly surprised that people here are wise and sophisticated enough to distinguish American people from the US government and its warped policies.
The return of foreign tourists will, of course, pay many economic dividends, as will outbound Chinese tourists to countries around the globe. But I think it’s imperative that foreigners, particularly those who are force-fed false propaganda about the Chinese people and their government, come to China and see the Chinese miracle with their own eyes. They can, and should, make up their own minds.
There has to be a reason why in survey after survey, without exception, the Chinese people rate their governments, at all levels, higher than people in any other country do about their governments.
I’m delighted to be back in China. Despite the challenges of the last few years, China not only looks and feels better, it has overcome challenges and is better placed to embrace its glorious destiny as well. Recently, the government released a document, in which the authorities vow to take more measures to improve management and services for international travelers, including streamlining visa procedures and increasing international flights. So international tourists, come and see the real China for yourself.