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As China flexes muscles, Taiwan tour agents and Korean actors bear the brunt

'Growth of mainland Chinese demand for fun is a welcome respite to subdued global trade,' say economists

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 8:17am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 1:07pm

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' symbolises his ambition for the nation's future place in the world," corporate and investment bank 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 jetloads of tourists who boost the economies of the countries they visit.

In 2015, China outbound departures reached 128 million, 9.7 per cent higher than a year ago—and there's plenty of scope for the number to increase since just five per cent 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 US$235 billion last year and the boisterous pace persisted in the early part of this year. Spending by Chinese tourists abroad rose 20 per cent on-year to US$80.3 billion in the first quarter of 2016.

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 per cent from a year ago in May and June.

Meanwhile, the US 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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