Five things Canadians need to know when traveling to China

A tourist visits a major city in China. (Photo from Getty Images)

With a third Canadian recently detained in China, Canadians may be understandably skittish about traveling there. But experts say they have nothing to worry about as long as they follow a few simple, common sense rules.

If you’re planning on traveling to China in the coming days or in 2019, here’s what you should consider:

1. Listen to the Canadian Government

The first thing you should do when planning a trip to China is to closely monitor the government travel advisories pertaining to the country. As of this writing, travelers are advised to “Exercise a high degree of caution due to isolated acts of violence including bombings and protests,” which is a risk-level that that is second from the bottom in terms of scale, but it’s important to stay updated in case there are any changes.

“I would say following the advice of the travel advisories is the single most important thing you can do right now,” says Gordon Houlden, professor of political science and director of The China Institute at the University of Alberta.

G Adventures, an adventure tour group based in Toronto, is still running tours to China, but they offer the same advice.

“The safety and security of our travelers are our top priority. We continue to operate our tours and recommend to our travelers globally to consult their government’s travel advisories when planning their holidays. If there are hesitations with traveling to a particular country, consider an alternative destination that offers similar experiences,” says Tim Chan, G Adventures’ public relations manager.

2. Register with the Public Security Bureau

Second only to monitoring government travel advisories is behaving yourself while in China.

That means registering with China’s Public Security Bureau. If you are staying in a hotel, you are registered automatically when you check in for the duration of your stay there and then re-registered when you change accommodation. But if you’re staying in a private residence, you or your host must register you within 24 hours of arriving to follow the letter of the law. Failure to register could result in a fine.

“They’re going to know you’re there because when you enter China they take your fingerprints electronically, so don’t try to avoid it and just follow the rules,” says Houlden.

You are under surveillance in China. According to Tim Chan of G Adventures, CCTV is prevalent in public spaces, so it’s important to follow the law and be respectful of cultural norms. However, Houlden says the average Canadian won’t be monitored any more closely than they are in North America.

“If they were looking for you, they could probably find you fairly quickly,” says Houlden. “But, quite frankly, with the electronic littering that comes with carrying a cellphone, Google knows where you are, even if Canada doesn’t care.”

He adds that as long as you’re behaving lawfully, you should have nothing to worry about.

3. Obey Chinese Law

Speaking of behaving lawfully, it might seem obvious to follow the laws of the country you’re staying in, but simply following the law as you know it in Canada is not enough while in China.

Of course, the big one is marijuana possession, which carries stiff penalties in China, but other things you may not expect to be illegal include making and posting a poster with a political statement and publicly criticizing Chinese leadership.

“I don’t think you’re going to get in trouble talking to a friend about Chinese leadership, but the routine disparagement of Prime Minister Harper or Trudeau – depending on what tribe of voters you belong to – is not allowed when it comes to Chinese leaders,” says Houlden.

“You might just embarrass your host and in public it’s not a good idea. It’s not as if they’re waiting to swoop on you, I just think it’s a bit dumb. Nobody is not pretending it’s a democracy, but why be in their face? Even those who may not agree with their country, may react in a defensive manner.”

4. Take Advice from Trustworthy Locals or Long-Time Former Residents

If you’re new to China, people you know who live there will tell you what goes down and what doesn’t, along with what’s problematic and what isn’t.

“You have to sort through that yourself and it depends who you’re getting advice from, but in general, you can learn a lot from others who are there,” says Houlden.

The cultural differences between China and Canada are numerous. While Canadians are exceedingly polite when they bump into someone on the street, the Chinese may seem more polite in more familiar social situations, and rude as a stranger on the street.

“China is very populated and some regions can be extremely crowded. The idea of personal space is different from what we’re used to in the west. Don’t be alarmed if you’re jostled around while waiting in line,” says Chan.

Other tips include not using the communal chopsticks to eat with when you’re at a restaurant with Chinese friends, shaking hands when greeting instead of bowing (this isn’t Japan) and when you are given a business card, don’t shove it directly into your pocket – take some time to study it.

“An astute observer will be able to quickly pick up what the differences are,” says Houlden. “Though ignoring these unwritten rules won’t get you thrown in jail, following them will earn you a lot of respect among those you meet and are staying with.”

Chan recommends a tour as a great way to learn these insider tips and tricks or just get to know cultural norms faster.

“Traveling with an organized tour group is a great way to have the insider’s perspective of the destination,” he says.

5. Relax and Enjoy Your Stay

If you’re following the advice above, (particularly the first three) then you should feel free to relax and enjoy your stay.

“With so much to see, China is an important country to better understand,” says Houlden.

“Despite the headlines, there are over ten flights a day to China. Lots of Canadians are going there, enjoying themselves learning something about China and that’s a good thing in the long run for both countries. That’s why I hope, despite the hearing on Chinese media, more Chinese people come to Canada because that people-to-people contact is very important.”

At the same time, Houlden doesn’t anticipate an end to the tension between China and Canada any time soon with Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou not receiving her extradition hearing until February 6.

“I don’t think this is something that’s going to be all behind us by the end of the holiday season and will continue to be an ongoing issue into the new year. However, I don’t support Canadians not going to China and Chinese people not coming to Canada. Just follow these rules and you should be good,” says Houlden.