Here's why China's just not that into you

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

I was returning home from a two-week trip in China when I heard that Chinese President Xi Jinping gave himself the authority to become leader of his country indefinitely.

The news put my visit into context. I’ve been to China a number of times, but this time something was different. Of course the country is still growing fast, but what surprised me is that its connection to the rest of the world now seems to have been arrested.

Typically when a country builds more roads, airports and cellular networks, it also becomes more integrated into global culture and communication systems. Not so China right now. Sure, China has new roads and cell phone networks galore, but its connectivity to the West, which had been slowly growing, seems to have stopped or even reversed, a change locals tell me began when Xi became president in 2013.

Fordham University Law School professor Carl Minzer’s new book “End of an Era,” spells out this turn of events. Minzer argues that China’s reform era is ending and outlines the looming risks of instability that this change is creating.

My first hint at this new reality came before I even arrived in the country. I went to the Chinese consulate in New York to pick up my visa, and surprise, it was for three months and only one entry, where previously I had been granted much longer stays and multiple entries. Why the change? Perhaps because the government computers have figured out I’m a journalist, even though I was going for a vacation.

Getting harder to visit

When I landed in China, more evidence. I quickly discovered that VPNs at western hotels, which used to help you connect to the likes of the New York Times, Google and Facebook now don’t work very well. As with many governmental edicts in China, this is difficult to confirm as official policy, and sometimes there is access. But you can’t count on it, and my experience at multiple hotels and speaking with a number of Westerners was that these sites are mostly blocked now.

Meanwhile, censoring domestic sites has been stepped up, including most recently criticism of Xi’s new non-term limit status. An FT story reports Chinese authorities blocking phrases like “I disagree,” “migration,” and “boarding a plane” on the Chinese site Weibo.

There’s another thing that quickly struck me. That is how few Westerners are there. As in I saw maybe several dozen Westerners in total during my visit which included massively packed, high-profile tourist sites like the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and the Terracotta Army in Xi’an. Why? Maybe because the Chinese don’t make it so easy to visit.

Memorabilia featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping are displayed at a souvenir shop in Beijing, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Payments is a perfect example why. I’m sure you’ve heard of the amazing mobile payment systems that China has, where consumers buy everything by scanning a QR code on their phone through apps like Alipay and Wechat. It works like a charm. (At one restaurant, you don’t get a bill – you just scan the QR reader at your table which showed what you ordered. Click “pay” and you’re done.)

There’s just one problem. If you’re a Westerner, it’s difficult to do. You need the app, of course, but you also need a Chinese bank account. Good luck with that. What about just using a credit card like any other big economy country? Nope. U.S. credit cards aren’t accepted very much. You can use them at Western businesses like Starbucks and Hilton, but other places like the train system and most restaurants, forget it. As for getting cash from an ATM, (again like any other big economy country), not so easy either. Banks restrict how much cash you can take out every day.

Win, win for the Chinese

This system, of course, benefits Chinese Internet giants, like Alibaba and Tencent (owner of Wechat), and Chinese banks, which have wrapped themselves in the flag of nationalism when lobbying the government to protect their lucrative market. Bottom line: The payments system works great for the Chinese, not so much for foreigners. The Chinese are fine with that because the domestic market is huge and growing, plus tourists aren’t that important, and maybe most significantly, it lets the government keep a firm grip on the financial system. Win, win for Chinese. The rest of us don’t matter.

China has a vibrant Internet of course, it just isn’t connected to the West in most cases. Ditto with pop culture. Western TV shows are not welcome by the government. Same with Western news outlets (though negative stories about the U.S. are always okay.) The Olympics and the NBA are allowed. I saw a number of pick-up basketball games in Beijing on courts with giant ads featuring NBA stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

And then there are all sorts of small insignificant matters, that nevertheless catch your eye. Like liquor. Chinese restaurants and hotel bars have all manner of Western brands of spirits, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows what to do with them. Never mind getting a cosmopolitan. Try asking for a Jack Daniels on ice. In Chinese. By a native speaker. Not happening. I guess it’s because, again, there just aren’t that many tourists and most Chinese don’t drink Western liquor. They drink beer and Chinese liquor, especially Moutai, a potent, expensive drink made by a company with the same name which has the biggest market capitalization of any spirits company in the world.

Yes, the bullet trains are amazing—I took one to Xi’an that topped 305 kilometers per hour (or 190 mph)—but the ticketing machines don’t work so well. Nor do the check-in machines at the airports. Speaking of trains, on the subways in Xi’an, a continuous loop on the wonders of Xi Jinping played, prompting one Beijing native to comment along the lines of “this is tacky hero worship in the hinterlands.”

Still, most Chinese people I spoke with are positively inclined towards Xi, but many were wary of his new powers. (Western news reports call his new indefinite term as Putin-like.) BTW, most Chinese I met also had favorable things to say about President Trump. Though many said he “isn’t a good guy,” they would then say something along the lines of “he’s a businessman, right?” “That’s okay.” And without fail they would then go on to gush about the president’s daughter Ivanka. As in: “She’s wonderful, lovely, classy.”

On the way out of country I was reminded one last time of the new Chinese reality. The day before I left, I visited a Beijing company called SensingTech, which makes facial recognition technology and surveillance monitoring systems and software. Its primary customer is the Chinese government which uses the technology to take millions of pictures in train stations and airports to screen the population and “look for bad guys.” The company’s CTO reported that business was brisk.

Passing through security at the Beijing airport I was told I needed to have my picture taken. What for, I asked? To add to our database, the security officer told me with a smile.

Guess I’ll be recognized when I come back.

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter.