When Jack Ma of e-commerce giant Alibaba was growing up in the picturesque city of Hangzhou, he dreamed about having a passport and travelling overseas. Although he was hopeless with maths and mediocre with most other subjects at school, he had always been proficient with English due to this dream of seeing the world. As a teenager, Ma liked to hang out at popular tourist sites where he could meet Western tourists and practice English with them. In 1980 he befriended an Australian family – the Morleys – in this way and stayed in touch with Ken Morley, the father, throughout his high-school and college years. Actually, it was Ken who later encouraged Jack to fulfil his dream and sponsored his application for his very first passport, enabling Ma to get his very first travel visa and make his first overseas trip to Australia in 1985.
Only a few years younger than Ma, I share his experience and sentiments. While growing up in northeastern China in the early 1980s – when the country just started its reform and open-up policies following decades of Mao’s iron-hand rule – we learned about the Western world from books and pop culture and were fascinated with everything Western. But back then the government only issued passports to those who were considered “safe to leave” and had the economic means, which was typically an elite group. Besides the extreme difficulty of getting a passport, an ordinary citizen had to go through a strenuous application process to obtain a visa from any country he or she wished to visit except for North Korea and the former Yugoslavia, the only two countries that gave holders of ordinary Chinese passports visa-free or visa on arrival access. Therefore, in order to fulfill my dream of seeing the world, I studied very hard through high-school and college and scored near perfect with my TOTEL and GRE tests which then enabled me to get graduate assistantship from a US university upon graduation from college in Beijing. Still, it took me six months to apply for a passport as well as a visa from the US Consulate in my hometown before I was able to board an airplane – for the first time in my life – to fly to America.
Fast forward 30 years: today’s China is the world’s second largest economy and the top consumer of many products and commodities. Its citizens’ spending on overseas travel and shopping has become a force too great to be ignored by other nations. Last year alone, mainland Chinese citizens made 292 million overseas excursions and spent hundreds of billions of US dollars on the trips. Hence, I was not surprised when I read the news that Chinese passports today rank at 75th place in the latest Henley Passport/Visa Restriction Index – having climbed 10 spots in receiving visa-free or visa on arrival access to other countries in 2017. According to People’s Daily, Chinese citizens can now enjoy such access to 67 countries and territories. That’s a sea change compared with 1985 (just two).
Early last year, Jack Ma returned to Ken Morley’s hometown Newcastle with a gift of $20 million The Ma & Morley Scholarship Programme was bequeathed to the local university to honour his Australian friends. He described his maiden voyage 32 years before as having “a profound positive impact” on his view of the world.
I hope our easier access to the outside world is also having a profound impact on the worldview of young Chinese so that they won’t be easily influenced or manipulated by narrow-mindedness or xenophobia regarding the relationship between China and the outside world.
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at email@example.com
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