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Business Travel in China: Navigating a Changing Landscape

Meagan Gleason

January 04, 2019

Originally Posted August 1, 2018

Update: January 4, 2019—Business travelers heading to China should be aware that the U.S. State Department has issued new warnings regarding travel within the country, as part of its regular annual review process. 

Though the country’s assessed threat level remains at Level 2, the advisory calls out the country’s arbitrary enforcement of local laws and use of exit bans as a coercive measure against U.S. citizens and dual U.S.-Chinese nationals. For more on the updated advisory, view the full copy on the State Department’s website.

Nearly 138 million foreign citizens traveled to China in 2016, many of them U.S. business travelers connecting with international branches, customers and suppliers.

As the world’s largest consumer market and the second largest economy after the United States, executive travel to China is not expected to slow any time soon. In addition to standard travel safety concerns, traveling to and within China is a very different proposition than other common destinations. What’s more, as trade tensions and geo-political questions continue to mount, sources indicate that China appears to be tightening its control on traveler freedoms and corporate espionage continues to be a real threat.

As a result, we recommend foreign executives pay attention to the country’s changing landscape and take special precautions when visiting China.


What Makes China Different?

Travel to moderate risk areas isn’t exactly a rarity for executives—particularly those at multinational corporations. While caution is important in all of these cases, trips to China require special attention for a number of reasons, many of which aren’t immediately observable.

Surveillance State

Since China is a surveillance state, travelers in the country should not have expectations of privacy or confidentiality. This has a number of implications for business travelers:

  • It should be expected that anyone providing services to foreigners—drivers included—may report back to Chinese authorities.
  • Personal electronic devices may be accessed without your knowledge, which could open them up to being infected with malware.
  • You should assume that all digital communications and internet browsing are likely to be monitored and recorded.

It’s a scary reality, but it’s one that U.S. officials have been warning about since 2008. In advance of the Beijing Olympics that year, former U.S. national counterintelligence executive Joel Brenner suggested travelers to the country leave all devices at home, based on cases in which Chinese malware was remotely inserted into cell phones before infecting computer servers in the United States.

According to Brenner, in an interview with Ellen Nakashima and William Wan of the Washington Post, “What’s at stake is not only the security of your current communications, but the security of your secrets back home. That’s the real danger.”

Updated Security Assessments

In addition, the governments of the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada, among others, recently upgraded their risk assessments of China, and have suggested that travelers to the country “exercise increased caution”—or in the case of Canada as of July 17, a "high degree of caution."

Governments cited increasing diplomatic tensions, worsening crime situations, and isolated violence as rationales for downgrading China’s risk rating, keeping in mind that these come on top of potentially dangerous conditions that had already been acknowledged such as poor road conditions, high volume traffic, and low driving standards. Recent U.S.-China trade negotiations have also fanned the flame of pre-existing tension and distrust of Westerners.

These revised security assessments underscore the importance of using travel providers you know and trust whenever possible in China. While trustworthy travel partners are always beneficial, the evolving situation in China makes it even more important that you work with those who understand and can operate reliably within its unique market and conditions.


5 Travel Safety Tips for All China Travelers

Because travel in China presents unique challenges,  keep the following tips in mind when visiting the country.

#1—Do not hold sensitive conversations in hotel rooms or while riding in vehicles

Assume that your communications will be monitored. Do not share confidential information until you’re able to do so securely.

#2—Leave your personal devices at home, or bring clean ones

To prevent data theft or infection, should your phone, tablet or laptop be accessed without authorization, consider carrying a clean device that only contains the information necessary for your trip. Many business travelers keep a separate set of devices on hand for international travel, wiping them clean both before departing and after their return home (importantly, before logging on to home networks).

#3—Keep devices with you or someone you trust at all times

Do not assume that your hotel room—even the safe—is secure. If you’re flying private, do not leave devices on the jet while you attend to your meetings, as parked aircraft may be boarded and searched, since third party security is typically not allowed at Chinese airports.

#4—Set up a secure VPN to access the internet before departure, as you may not be able to do so once you’ve arrived in China

As internet access is State-controlled in China, this may leave you unable to utilize important resources. For example, Google and all of its properties, such as Gmail, are banned within the country.

#5—Stay alert

Though China is a relatively safe country by many measures, there are suggestions that public crime statistics may not be accurate.

Situational awareness is a valuable tool in any case. When traveling between locations, resist the temptation to zone out in the car or bury your nose in a book. Be aware of the route you’re traveling and the neighborhoods you’re moving through to minimize risk.


Traveling Safely in China

Don’t let the information shared above deter you from visiting. China is a fascinating country, with a wealth of history and business opportunities that make it a worthwhile destination for business and personal travel. The risk of physical harm to visitors is low, which is part of what makes it so easy to overlook the concerns China presents.

However, corporate espionage is a real threat. Combine that with the fact that most business travelers have access to more information than most of us realize, and you can see why maintaining constant vigilance—as well as working with travel partners who keep up with the situation and can help set you up for success—is so important.

At Savoya, we continue to monitor the situation and to adapt our operations to the changing environment there. We remain committed to providing an outstanding service and safety experience across China to all our clients. Please reach out for more information about the cities we serve across China and all of Southeast Asia.

What other tips do you have on traveling in China? Have you seen any evidence of the situation on the ground changing? Leave us a note below sharing your experiences.

Meagan Gleason
Meagan Gleason

Savoya’s longest tenured employee next to founder Robert Dobrient, Ms. Gleason currently serves as Savoya’s Chief Operating Officer. As a thought leader in the travel industry, she shares high-level insight into research, trends and other new developments affecting the space.