Thursday, November 27, 2008

News: No return after the Olympics

ST November 26, 2008 Wednesday, 07:21 PM

Chua Chin Hon looks at how China cabbies are affected by the economic crisis.

In Beijing

IT IS said that a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing can sometimes cause a tornado in Florida, at least according to scientists who study the seemingly unpredictable behaviour of natural systems, such as the weather.

The financial hurricane blowing across the United States seems to be reversing the direction of this theory, popularly known as the Butterfly Effect.

Ordinary workers and consumers worldwide, who hitherto thought Wall Street's meltdown had nothing to do with them, are now waking up to the unpleasant realisation that a major financial storm brewing tens of thousands of miles away can suddenly clip their wings, so to speak.

At least one Beijing "butterfly" – actually my regular driver in the Chinese capital – feels this way.

The driver, let's call him Chen, has been running an unlicensed taxi service for years. Though Beijing has been trying to clamp down on such services in recent years, he has stayed out of trouble by working only with regulars and tourists.

The latter group has been his cash cow. According to Chen, he practically earns his entire annual income during the peak tourist season in Beijing – between August and October.

Tourists usually make a beeline for attractions like the Great Wall during these months, when the sweltering summer gives way to Beijing's gorgeous autumn skies. In previous years, Chen would get at least two to three bookings every week during this period.

Depending on how far they travelled, these tourists paid between 800 yuan to 1,200 yuan per trip.

This year, however, Chen said he did not get one single booking from foreign tourists, be they American, European or Russian ones. Initially, he thought the tourists stayed away to avoid the Olympic crush in August.

But the Beijing Olympics has come and gone, and the tourists are not returning.

"Not a single soul," he told me during a recent drive to the airport. "It's never been like this before."

Chen, whose moment of epiphany came one afternoon in October while reading a newspaper article on the US financial crisis and how it was hurting the real economy, added: "In September, I thought to myself 'I have no investments, so this has nothing to do with me'.

"Now I know just how much this financial crisis will affect me. Who's going to come see the Great Wall if they can't even be sure about keeping their house?"

Even his regulars – businessmen, journalists, and the occasional Russian trader – are using his services less these days. Businesses are talking about cost cutting, while the usually gung-ho Russians have put their trade on ice. All this, no thanks to the rocky global currency markets, which might turn entire shipments of goods from profit-making one moment to a disastrous financial lost the next.

Further, a growing number of foreign journalists, meanwhile, have been filtering out of the Chinese capital since the buzz from the Olympics dissipated.

"It's mind-boggling when I think about how all these things add up and affect my business in the end," said an uncharacteristically downbeat Chen.

He is hopeful though that the economic recovery would spread just as fast as the current spell of misery. For now, however, Chen said he is just going to hunker down for a potentially long winter.

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