Tuesday, April 10, 2012


In his interview about China for The Browser, New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos introduced me to the idea of the “airport” view of a country. This is a concept devised by political economist Huang Yasheng. It means you see everything about the country through the prism of what the airport is like. Fancy airport, great country, great economy. (I have a slight suspicion this is what Niall Ferguson has fallen victim to recently, he seems to be very ra-ra about China at the moment).

Today (April 6th) I flew out of Beijing Capital Airport with my two girls (age 4 and 3) and so I’d like to include my own airport observations.

  • The architecture seemed fine: it’s not something I pay much attention to.
  • I’ve travelled a lot, and whether the airport carts are free or not says a lot about a country’s attitude to visitors. If you have a system where an exhausted person, coming off a 12 hour flight, has to fumble with change which -- given they’ve just come from a foreign country -- they might not even have yet, or a credit card they might not own (remember in some countries not every sentient being uses Mastercard or Visa), I feel that, on balance, as a country, you haven’t given much thought to making foreigners feel welcome. At Beijing airport, needless to say, the carts are free.
  • Ditto Wifi.
  • No waiting in line anywhere at all – that was very liberating, especially travelling with young children.
  • Check out the picture below from immigration control! Yes, in a one-party state, where government officials traditionally had no accountability, the potential immigree can -- with the press of a button -- give feedback on the performance of his immigration officer. Sorry mate, but your "checking time was too slow"…I hope the INS and immigration services around the world take some tips from this approach, because I’ve had some bad experiences.

  • There was a children’s playground. A simple concept but again, if you’re travelling with young kids, what a Godsend. I happily sipped a latte by some plants (which someone was in the process of dusting) as the girls played and watched tv.

  • I could send a parcel by express mail!  Of course the moment I was through security, I realized I still had our Chinese car's registration documents in my handbag. In the US or the UK, I’d be completely sunk. In Beijing, I knew I would probably be OK, and lo and behold I was. There was a desk where they picked up the documents and sent them by overnight mail to Charlie, who is still in Beijing. He can put them in the car tomorrow. [Update: the car documents didn't arrive until five days later! So much for overnight express...]

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