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Quarantine, WeChat and chicken feet: How the pandemic has changed tech business travel to China

In 2020, visiting China for business can be a bit like playing the lottery.

Quarantine, WeChat and chicken feet: How the pandemic has changed tech business travel to China

After concluding his 14 days in isolation, startup adviser Kevin Yang was free to continue his business trip.

Photo: Kevin Yang

Kevin Yang has traveled to China countless times. As a former Huawei and Oppo executive, he used to visit the country almost every quarter. However, when Yang recently got ready to visit a Chinese startup he is advising, he quickly realized that the pandemic would make this a very different trip.

Yang has been documenting his trip in a series of LinkedIn posts, which offer some fascinating insights into the state of business travel during COVID, the ever-growing importance of WeChat in a country recovering from the pandemic, and shifts in the Chinese tech industry as it adapts to a rapidly changing world.

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One of Yang's most striking observations is the omnipresence of WeChat in China, and the way the pandemic has reinforced its importance to the Chinese. To prepare for his trip, Yang joined a number of WeChat groups, which helped him get his documents in order. (To get a special visa, China currently requires an invite, a negative COVID test and more from foreign visitors). He also joined a dedicated WeChat group for passengers of his flight, and one to chat with people who had taken this very flight in recent weeks.

Once Yang landed in China, WeChat became even more important. Instead of filling out a customs form on paper, he prepared his customs declaration in a WeChat mini-app, which then generated a QR code that was scanned by customs officials. At the airport, he was prompted to scan another QR code to prepare for his local travel — all within WeChat. "The Chinese government wanted to make all the processes contactless," Yang told Protocol.

WeChat has long been a daily utility in China for everything from communication to cashless payments. However, the embrace of WeChat as an essential tool for international travel during the pandemic comes at a time when the Trump administration is pushing to ban the app from U.S. app stores. "It would make the process very difficult for foreign travelers," Yang said about a possible WeChat ban.

Once Yang arrived in China, he had to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a randomly assigned hotel. "Finding out the quarantine hotel is like opening a mystery box in 2020," he wrote on LinkedIn. On one of his WeChat groups, people had crowdsourced a number of hotels used to quarantine international travelers, complete with reports on whether the hotels allowed guests to order outside food. "Some were overjoyed to find that they were assigned to the so-called 'Lottery Hotels,'" he wrote. "Some were disappointed when they got a crappy hotel."

Yang ended up staying in two relatively basic hotels, one of which didn't allow outside food. Instead, hotel staff dropped off meals outside of his room three times a day. Yang was a bit disappointed by the choice of food, but some of his fellow international travelers had a much harder time. One visitor from Spain in particular wasn't exactly familiar with some of the traditional Chinese dishes, including chicken feet. "He complained all the time," Yang said.

One day, an ambulance arrived at the hotel to pick up one of the quarantined guests. On WeChat, other travelers started freaking out, worried that one of the guests had gotten COVID. But soon after, they learned that it was the Spaniard, who was being relocated to a Western-style hotel. He hadn't been ill; he just didn't like chicken feet.

Yang used much of his time in quarantine doing video chats to catch up with friends and colleagues, including some who he got to work with as a procurement director for Huawei. Many of the folks working in the chipset industry were especially upbeat, he noted on LinkedIn: "China is investing heavily […] in replacing American chips with homegrown solutions." Prompted by the escalating trade war, and attempts of the Trump administration to cut off companies like Huawei from the U.S. semiconductor supply chain, the Chinese government has rolled out massive incentives to kickstart homegrown chip production.

These measures include direct financial assistance from the government, as well as easier access to land and real estate to build out manufacturing capabilities. A year ago, it was still challenging to raise money for chip manufacturing in China, Yang said. These days, it has become one of the country's hottest investment areas. "This moment is huge," Yang said. "It's a gold rush."

Yang was able to leave quarantine after 14 days and another negative COVID test. Since then, he has been able to move about in China with few restrictions. He's taken taxis, subways, airplanes and other forms of transportation, noting at one point on LinkedIn that this alone felt like "a luxury in a world terrorized by COVID." "It's a very different feeling," he told Protocol.

In the end, Yang is glad that he traveled to China, even with the hassle of mandatory quarantine. Still, he cautioned that it can be especially challenging for anyone not fluent in Chinese. "Right now, it's difficult to travel to China for foreigners," Yang said. "Be prepared," he advised. "Do some research."

And, one might add, get ready to expand your culinary horizons.

Correction: The caption on the photo for this story misrepresented how many days Kevin Yang spent in quarantine. It was 14, not 11.

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