As a student in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong back in 1980 I had the opportunity to get a desk and access to the library of the University Service Center, a convenient place in Kowloon, Argyle Street, to work on my Master’s Thesis in the city, convenient logistically and also because the center offered air-condition, a luxury the farmhouse in the New Territories I was living in did not provide. Later the USC moved to my university, the CUHK, just one valley away from our farmhouse.
Most of the other researchers at the USC were citizens of the country which paid for the center, the USA. They spent their time poring over Chinese documents, most of the regional newspapers smuggled out of the Mainland to Hong Kong. They were called “China watchers”, counting the number of times the names of the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were mentioned each day or checking for how many days some minor leaders had not been mentioned at all, trying to find clues about what was going on inside the party in these very early days of China’s period of Reform and Opening, which had started in December 1978 at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee.
Today a million times more information about China is available every day, but the opaqueness of the inner dealings of the party has not changed. China watching is back, an example of which was the widely noticed and discussed fact that recently several days passed without Xi Jinping being mentioned on the front page of the Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily). Some China watchers argued that this was a sign of Xi’s waning power, pointing out that Premier Li Keqiang’s 8,000-word speech at a State Council work conference was published in full on the second page of the People’s Daily during that period. Others remembered, however, that in 2018 a period of three weeks without any front page mentioning of Xi Jinping did not result in any visible shrinkage of power, rather the opposite.
Last week we already discussed in this editorial the reappearance of Prime Minister Li Keqiang, whom the Wall Street Journal called the “forgotten Premier”, and his speech during a meeting celebrating the 70th anniversary of the CCPIT in Beijing. In the meantime, Chinese media reported that he “reiterated that China’s resolve to open up to the outside world will not change and that China will continue to build itself into a big market and a hot destination for foreign investment.” The difference between this position and the de-globalisation policies of the last years, which pointed towards an end of the period of Reform and Opening, is striking. Whereas the Reform and Opening policy, or its father Deng Xiaoping, has been hardly mentioned in recent times, Li Keqiang during the CCPIT meeting even “expressed gratitude to foreign business institutions and enterprises that have been actively participating in and supporting China’s reform, opening-up and modernization drive for a long time.” (Global Times)
Even more unusual was the video conference on May 25th, which Premier Li hosted at short notice and which involved more than 100,000 participants from all levels of government, but saw the absence of many important party leaders. The video call focused on the economic situation, which Li described in a realistic manner as economic indices being at record lows, national and local government budgets shrinking, unemployment growing and a hoped-for recovery in May barely materializing. Li said, according to the transcript of the call, that the situation appears worse in some ways than when China was in lockdown in 2020.
The People’s Daily by contrast had on its front page on the same day another article praising the bright prospects of the economy under President Xi Jinping’s leadership.
Chinese local officials find themselves now between a rock and a hard place. The government is emphasising the need to avoid further damage to the economy by the uncompromising, unsuccessful and very expensive Zero CoViD measures and the need for reopening the country, while the party is insisting that even the discussion of these measures is a criminal act.
What does all that mean for the future of China’s outbound tourism? The answer is very simple: Nobody knows. Nobody knows how severe the power struggle behind the gates of Zhongnanhai really is, much less who will be the winner. Nobody knows how long China will continue what most observers describe as “economic suicide”, if Xi Jinping succeeds in being re-elected for a third term in October, or how much closer the relations between Russia and China will become. The answers to these questions will decide the timing of China reopening the borders and the level of welcome for Chinese visitors abroad. The fate of the tourism industry, it has to be feared, will not rank very high on the list of important criteria in these developments.
What is known is the persistence of the strong wish of the Chinese top 10% of the society to be able to leave the country again, most for business, health, education, family or leisure, and some for good.
As always, all best wishes from Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt and the whole COTRI WEEKLY team!