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President Xi expands China's soft power through tourism

Tourists from China take a selfie in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Matthieu Alexandre | AFP | Getty Images

When China sneezes, the rest of Asia catches a cold. Tour operators in Taiwan and television actors in Seoul are learning this the hard way.

As the Middle Kingdom moves to expand its influence, President Xi Jinping is steering China to the top of the global powers with an emphasis on the key signals of an empire: Controlling territory well beyond one's borders either through soft or hard (military) power.

"Xi's 'China Dream' to 'rejuvenate the Chinese nation' symbolizes his ambition for the nation's future place in the world," Natixis economists Alicia Garcia Herrero and Trinh Nguyen wrote in a recent report.

"Such longing for an empire can be explained by a nostalgia for a period (in history) when the Asian kingdoms – Burma, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, the Ryukyu Islands and Korea – had traditionally paid annual 'tribute' to Beijing in exchange for trade rights and diplomatic protection."

While in the past the world's second-largest economy has extended its clout by being the most influential buyer of commodities and supplier of everything from cars to electronics, it has now found a new weapon: The millions of Chinese who travel overseas or gobble up imported soap operas.

China already wields enormous power in the form of jet-loads of tourists who boost the economies of the countries they visit.

In 2015, China outbound departures reached 128 million, 9.7 percent higher than a year ago—and there's plenty of scope for the number to increase since just 5 percent of China's population holds a passport, said the Natixis analysts.

"In an environment where global consumption of material goods is declining, exponential growth of mainland Chinese demand for fun, especially for a life less ordinary through travel, is a welcome respite to subdued global trade."

The tourists spent about $235 billion last year and the boisterous pace persisted in the early part of this year. Spending by Chinese tourists abroad rose 20 percent on-year to $80.3 billion in the first quarter of 2016.


"The New China under Xi Jinping is no longer in full acceptance with the status quo but, rather, more of a revisionist of the existing sharing of powers." -Alicia Garcia Herrero, Trinh Nguyen, Natixis

It's unsurprising, therefore, that while China's used its plentiful economic and military prowess to chide opponents in the past, the country has expanded its repertoire.

After Taiwan incurred the wrath of Beijing by electing a pro-independence female president this year, the number of tourists from China dropped drastically, reportedly under directions from China's central governments to limit the number of tourists headed to the territory, Taiwanese local media reported.

According to The Taipei Times, which cited government data, travelers in tour groups to Taiwan, dropped 30 percent from a year ago in May and June.

Meanwhile, the U.S. deployment of a Thaad missile on South Korean soil is angering China, as it starts to put curbs on imported South Korean television programs and on approvals for actors from the country, media reports said.

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