THIS IS THE CHINESE YEAR OF THE ROOSTER, and the symbolism is most apposite. When I talked to travel professionals from Shanghai recently, I heard the loud crowing of a new age where China will overtake us.
The first thing that amazed me was all the people I interviewed could debate with me in excellent English – a massive advance from even five years ago. Then there was what they spoke about: the most pioneering Chinese travel companies and travel managers are beginning to use mobile in ways we can only dream of in the West. We will hear much more in the coming months.
All this made me think, and not for the first time, that President Trump is a bit of a Cnut – and no, I’m not dyslexic, of course I refer to medieval Danish King Cnut who tried to hold back the tide – for pledging to revive the moribund industries of the Rust Belt, whose left-behind workers voted him into office.
Trump blamed globalisation for the decline of American industry, specifically competition from lower-paid labour in Mexico and China. He is mooting huge tariffs on Chinese manufactured goods. But that’s not going to bring the old jobs back. The Chinese themselves know there is no long-term future in knocking out cut-price reproductions of products invented in the west. China’s latest five-year plan focuses on innovation, and I already see signs that the country which became the world’s largest business travel market in 2016 is doing just that in our particular sector.
We continue to enjoy innovations aplenty from companies in the west too, the latest focus being on chatbots: apps that deploy natural language to inform travellers and act automatically on the instructions they receive in return. And this, of course, is the main reason for declining good-quality jobs. While Trump scapegoated China and Mexico – and Brexiteers, the EU and migrants – it is the inexorable automation of first blue-collar and now white-collar tasks that is largely responsible.
Just wait until driverless cars – technology, incidentally, being pioneered in the US – make even more Trump voters’ occupations obsolete. And it is the same in business travel. Every six months I look at the financial results for HRG and two trends never change: the online adoption rate among customers goes up and the number of employees goes down. I am sure many other travel management companies would reveal similar figures if public quotation obliged their disclosure.
What’s the solution? Well, I’m just a humble business travel journalist, but my recent exchanges with China convinced me that, first, we need to become better educated, especially by eradicating the anti-learning culture which holds back so many kids.