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Politics & Security

An Encounter with China, a 'Galapagos' of 1.4 Billion People

China wants to bring back tourists, but with its pervasive digitalization, it seems there are more hurdles than before for foreigners traveling on their own.

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The area around the Forbidden City, a popular tourist destination in Beijing, was crowded with tourists, all with cellphones, but there were few foreign tourists. (© Sankei by Shohei Mitsuzuka)

The Chinese government is looking to spark a rebound in the number of foreign visitors to China. Those numbers decreased sharply due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2023, the government announced several measures designed to attract visitors. Among them are simplifying visa application forms and lowering visa acquisition fees. 

However, I can't help but feel that it has become difficult for foreigners arriving from overseas to freely tour China. That is because of the acceleration of pervasive digitalization during China's coronavirus countermeasures.

The payment confirmation page is displayed on the Didi Chuxing taxi service application in tShanghai. (©Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Everything is Digitalized

While on vacation in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province in 2023, I tried to enter a park. However, I was told that I would have to pre-register using a smartphone app. Moreover, registration required a Chinese identification number, and passport numbers were not supported.

Nowadays, anyone who wants to catch a taxi must normally use an app to request one. Especially in big Chinese cities, it is sometimes difficult to spot an empty taxi even on the main streets. 

If you go to a restaurant and ask for a menu, your server is liable to tell you, "We don't have one. You can view one on your smartphone." 

People hold up their phones during the New Year's countdown event at the Shougang Park in Beijing, China December 31, 2023. (© REUTERS/Tingshu Wang)

Digital Isolation in a Human Universe

One of the great things about China is that if you are at your wit's end a kind soul is likely to show up and ask you, "What's the matter?" 

Travel in China is still no problem if you are part of a guided group tour. But I can't help but feel that there are more hurdles than before for foreigners traveling on their own. 

There was a time when it was common to compare Japan's technologies and services with the Galapagos Islands. The islands' geographical isolation had allowed living organisms to evolve in unique ways. In Japan's case, the diffusion of its technologies and services at that time had wandered far from global standards.

These days, however, the way digitalization of services is proceeding in China, it would seem that that land of 1.4 billion people is fast becoming a colossal "Galapagos." 

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(Read the essay in Japanese.)

Author: Shohei Mitsuka

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