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Nicholas Kristof Goes Lonely Planet

May 31st, 2009

fungun1Nicholas Kristof has gone “lonely planet” on us, providing advice on how to avoid trouble while traveling abroad. Some of the suggested defensive plays from his New York Times opinion piece include: 

– Carry a “decoy wallet,” so that if you are robbed by bandits with large guns, you have something to hand over.

– If you’re a woman held up in an isolated area, stick out your stomach, pat it and signal that you’re pregnant. You might also invest in a cheap wedding band, for imaginary husbands deflect unwanted suitors.

– Be wary of accepting drinks from anyone. Robbers sometimes use a date rape drug to knock out their victims — in bars, in trains, in homes.

Surely, Mr. Kristof doesn’t offer these pointers for travel to all foreign countries. As someone who has been around the globe many times, he can’t even have meant this as advice for travel to developing economies. You wouldn’t find such tips helpful for a backpack trip to Mainland China anyway, that’s for sure!

Crime doesn’t necessarily increase with poverty levels, but a correlation is generally understood. Any careful comparison of global crime around the world should probably take into account culture — but then who likes to talk about the differences among us? 

One of the questions in internationalism today is how one economy — China — could have attracted so many manufacturing orders. Some say that it has to do with the country’s low labor rate, but that’s just an economist’s approach. It is the cop-out line offered by those who don’t want to talk about other factors because of where such a discussion might lead.

Culture is a slippery slope, and you can’t say that the people in one place are “better” without suggesting that those in another are “worse,” and yet the incidence of violent crime in China is much lower than in many other corners.  

Nicholas Kristof has written on international issues for years, and he has written on China specifically. It’s a shame that he didn’t take the opportunity to discuss the subject of safety abroad to start a much bigger discussion on safety and culture. How is it possible that a country can be so poor and yet feel so safe to visitors? Why is it that this advice to backpackers in developing countries doesn’t apply to China?

I tackle the issue in my book, and the one chapter is available online. I don’t generally support book excerpts. I would if these books could be cut and spliced like a movie trailer (music would be nice), but excerpts often start and end in odd places, leaving a prospective reader scratching his head. This one excerpt here, though, ties in to the larger point inadvertently raised by Kristof, and there may be a few who would like to see the chapter.

For those who can’t be bothered to click through to the link, a quick sampling in which I am writing, specifically, about how importers perceived China at a given point in its economic history: 

Concerns about business risk weighed heavily in the decision-making process. What importers needed to know before they moved their business to China was whether the economy was safe. One important contributing factor was a changing perception of China as a low-risk environment.

There were still economies in the world where an importer could wire-transfer funds and find that the recipient and the cash had both disappeared. Importers who came to China were reporting to others that this sort of thing did not happen. Factories delivered the goods, and outright fraud was more rare than in other corners of the world.

Compared with other economies, China came to be seen as a sanctuary. Latin America remained a place where kidnappings by professional criminals was common. In other countries, you could at least count on having your luggage stolen. Vietnam, which was just next door to China—and which had even lower labor costs—was one of those markets where such stories of petty theft were commonplace.

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