Foreign Policy Blogs

How Beijing’s Foreign Policy Can Backfire on its Tourists

Turkish airline advertisement in Thailand. Photo credit: Ian Fuller

Turkish airline advertisement in Thailand. Photo credit: Ian Fuller

Being a Chinese tourist these days is not easy. You would think that a growing middle class of Chinese mainlanders flush with cash would be welcome in most countries, and this is certainly true in the majority of the ever-increasing number of countries with travel agreements with Beijing.

In the 1990s, Beijing slowly introduced a unique tourism policy called Approved Destination Status (ADS), which permitted overseas pleasure travel by its citizens in tightly controlled groups to government-approved countries. As disposable incomes for many Chinese improved in recent years, many have been tempted to travel overseas to an ever-increasing amount of approved countries. The demand has been great. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the number of trips abroad from China leaped to 109 million in 2014 — a trend that is expected to continue through 2015.

While big-spending Chinese have flocked to countries such as New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Australia and Singapore, some places have not been as welcoming. During Chinese New Year, Thailand started offering Chinese “tourism manuals” in an effort to curb offensive behavior. Thousands of Chinese tourists fled Vietnam following anti-Chinese riots, spurred by Beijing moving an offshore oil rig into Vietnam’s economic exclusive zone in May of last year.

Beijing’s foreign and domestic policies certainly play a role in how Chinese tourists are welcomed abroad, and in recent weeks, this has been most evident in Turkey. Earlier this month, a Korean tourist (mistaken as Chinese) was attacked by a group of ultra-nationalists in Ankara. That same day in Balikesir, protesters displayed an effigy of Mao Zedong. A few days later, Chinese tourists were harassed and attacked in Istanbul. Earlier this month, the restaurant Happy China in Istanbul was attacked by five men with sticks, who shouted, “We do not want a Chinese restaurant here, get out of our town!” The attacks followed the release of alleged reports of Uighurs in China not being permitted to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Uighurs are a Turkish-speaking ethnic minority who share ethnicity and close cultural ties with Turkish Muslims, and who are slowly being denied the right to practice their religion in Xinjiang, a far-western “autonomous region” of China. Once a majority, Uighurs currently comprise a shrinking 45 percent of the Xinjiang autonomous region.

Other reports of over 100 Uighurs in Thailand being repatriated to China sparked a demonstration on July 9 in front of the Thai embassy in Istanbul. The demonstration drew over 200 participants, believed to be part of the East Turkestan Solidarity Group, who attacked the embassy with stones and wooden planks.

The Chinese embassy has since issued a travel warning to its citizens in Turkey, advising them not to go out alone or going near protests. A concert scheduled for August by the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra in Turkey has been canceled, and extra security is being provided by local police for an upcoming exhibition by a Chinese artist.

Although the anger and frustration among Turkish Muslims is understandable, directing that anger (with violence) toward innocent Chinese tourists and shop owners is misdirected and should be targeted at their government, not their citizens. While on a tour of Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina, I recall once being chided by an Italian woman for being an American who had presumably voted for President George W. Bush. (Bush had just pushed forward with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.) She pointed at me angrily and shouted “Bush,” to which I merely responded “Berlusconi” in an effort to make her realize that even in a democracy, citizens are not always aligned with their leaders.

Protest should not be directed toward individuals, regardless of whether they have voted for their leader (impossible in the case of China) or under the assumption that they support all the actions of their government. Rather, peaceful demonstrations should be held in squares, outside embassies or government buildings. Those who attack innocent civilians should not go unpunished by their governments.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due for an official state visit to Beijing this week. Chinese leaders will be looking for assurances from Erdogan that he has anti-China sentiment under control, while Erdogan will face pressure at home to discuss the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Let us hope Erdogan can instill a sense of the repercussions of a failed domestic policy in Xinjiang upon China’s leaders, and also a reminder that angering their neighbors in Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines over maritime territorial claims may have similar repercussions.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666