How the ‘Safest Place on Earth’ Can Be More Welcoming to Others
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2017-08-12 07:02:28

China may well be one of the safest places in the world to visit, says the country’s leading travel website, Ctrip.

Two-thirds of the travelers it surveyed — nearly all of whom were Chinese — agreed that China was a safe place to visit, followed by Japan, which had a 51 percent approval rating. Singapore, New Zealand, Iceland, Australia, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates rounded out the top 10 safest travel destinations in the eyes of Ctrip’s Chinese customers.

The survey included thousands of responses from among the millions of travelers who book holidays with Ctrip every year. Of China’s major cities, Shanghai was voted the safest.

These results come at a time when high-profile murders of Chinese people in Japan, Germany, and the U.S. have left many in the country afraid of what lies beyond their borders. Nonetheless, statistics from the Ministry of Education indicate that over 540,000 Chinese students left the country to study abroad last year, bringing the total number of Chinese to have studied overseas since the reform and opening-up policies of 1978 to nearly 4.6 million. Moreover, the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, estimated that Chinese accounted for about a quarter of all the students in the world who were studying abroad last year. In 2016, 122 million Chinese traveled abroad, making China the most powerful driver of global tourism.

Older Chinese who remember living through decades of the country being closed off to the outside world might be shocked to hear such unfathomable figures. The opening-up policies have meant not only more Chinese going out, but also more visitors coming in — to the tune of 28 million last year. Chinese citizens themselves, meanwhile, took an estimated 4 billion trips within the country last year.

Lawrence Jeffrey, my playwright friend who authored a book on China and the internet nearly two decades ago, would agree that China is fast becoming a must-see destination, but for reasons that are perhaps sentimental more than practical: His mother was born in Shanghai’s French Concession, so named for when the city was divided up by Western powers and used as a port during the colonial age, beginning in the mid-19th century. I remember Lawrence showing me a photo of his mother’s old home, just a few blocks from where the Sixth Tone offices are now, in the very center of Shanghai. He has returned to the city often in the last decade, chasing fragments of family history and cultivating an ever more familiar relationship with the city.

Making China more accessible and user-friendly to all finally seems to be a legitimate priority of policymakers and all levels of government.

Today, the tourists who visit Shanghai might catch the high-speed Maglev train upon arriving at Pudong International Airport. After dropping their luggage off at a hotel, they might make a beeline for one of Xintiandi’s upscale bars, or to one of the humbler watering holes still left on Yongkang Road, for a cold beer. Some, having come just for a visit, might even end up returning to settle down — as a handful of my acquaintances have done.

Of the city’s 16 districts, Changning is home to the most foreigners at nearly 70,000, according to a local census carried out earlier this year. These foreigners, who make up about a quarter of all of those living in the city, come from 78 countries and regions across the world. Why do so many non-Chinese choose Changning over other districts? Easy mobility, for one: Neighboring Hongqiao District contains both an international airport and one of the city’s largest train stations. Changning is also host to a number of foreign consulates, which contribute to a certain sense of community, even in one of the world’s most populous cities.

That said, China still has a reputation for being a notoriously homogeneous country. “This is different from New York, where you can meet people from a dozen different countries before you’ve walked a single city block,” said Michael Monahan, the former director of international studies at Macalester College in Minnesota, when I brought him to see The Bund, Shanghai’s iconic waterfront promenade, a couple of years ago. “In Shanghai, chances are you’ll meet internationals much less frequently, and from fewer cultural backgrounds, and this hampers a sense of community for people who come here from elsewhere.”

But to compare Shanghai to the Big Apple is, well, to compare apples to oranges. While Shanghai already has a solid safety infrastructure — ubiquitous police and closed-circuit cameras occupying every nook and cranny, it seems — the city is now busying itself with becoming more appealing to foreign travelers and workers, with the language barrier between being the most obvious obstacle.

Some foreigners may associate China with air pollution, an authoritarian government, and endless masses of people, but in reality the daily concerns of expatriates living in the country are often smaller and more specific. Some of my foreign friends lament, for example, that limited language ability makes it hard for them to see a doctor, while others complain about the seemingly endless hoops one must jump through in order to secure a work visa.

Making China more accessible and user-friendly to all finally seems to be a legitimate priority of policymakers and all levels of government. Since joining the World Trade Organization nearly two decades ago, the country has had time to get used to a level economic playing field and the relatively free flow of goods across its borders.

Now, however, it’s time to encourage the free flow of people. Unlike Hong Kong, which has its own constitution, cities on the Chinese mainland have to toe the line where central policies are concerned. But I for one still firmly believe that it is a worthwhile endeavor for Shanghai to try and lead the pack in treating outsiders well and making it easier for them to get the hang of life in this vibrant city, especially if it hopes to compete with other cosmopolitan locales in attracting tourist dollars, foreign investment, and the brightest minds in the world.

(Header image: A police officer stands at an intersection in Shanghai, Jan. 3, 2015. Wang Zhao/VCG)