The Lunar New Year or Spring Festival is the most important vacation of the year in China. A time when cities grind to a halt and the country’s transport infrastructure creaks under the weight of the world’s largest human migration. Up to 3 billion journeys are completed during the Lunar New Year period as families reunite to celebrate the coming of the New Year with jiao zi and hong baos. Increasingly, however, the vacation is becoming an opportunity for China’s growing middle class to experience new, more distant locations. The 2017 Spring Festival saw 6.15mn trips made outside China at a year over year growth rate of 7%. Top destinations included Thailand, Japan and Korea with further flung destinations such as Europe and Africa also growing in popularity.
Chinese New Year fireworks in Xishuangbanna
With globalization as a core strategy, Alibaba is making it easier for overseas businesses to connect with the increasing numbers of Chinese travelers. Doing my first rotation at Ant Financial, I have also witnessed the increasingly important role that AGLAers are playing in this process. Here are a few examples; firstly, there is technical support. Providing assistance to overseas merchants with any integration and technical problems they have when accepting Alipay as a payment method, this team is on the front line in Ant’s globalization effort. Not far behind is the Strategic Partnerships team. Home to 2 AGLAers, the team has helped Ant roll out partnerships across Asia, Europe and the United States that allow Chinese tourists to use their Alipay wallet to purchase offline goods overseas in just the same way they would in China. Finally, there is the FX team. Foreign exchange is present in nearly all transactions conducted by Chinese overseas, since they pay the merchants in local currency while holding RMB in their Alipay wallet. It has been my pleasure to work with the FX team during my first AGLA rotation and to witness the work that goes on behind the scenes to facilitate the smooth settlement of transactions conducted abroad using the Alipay wallet.
Of course the Lunar New Year also provided an opportunity for the AGLA to pack their suitcases and travel. My colleagues headed to destinations including India, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan and New Zealand. Those who stayed in China traveled to Sichuan, Yunnan or Shanghai. I was among the latter group, deciding to stay in China to celebrate the coming of the New Year. I packed my bags and headed to Xishuangbanna where I saw a new side to the China I have come to know over the past half year. Affectionately known to locals as Banna, it is an autonomous prefecture in southern China’s Yunnan province. The term autonomous prefecture or (Zi Zhi Zhou) relates to the Chinese government’s practice of granting regional autonomy to ethnic groups; either at the county, prefecture or regional level. An example of a regional level prefecture would be the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region where 20% of China’s Hui population lives. China is home to 56 different ethnic groups including the majority Han and the ethnic minority population accounts for roughly 10% of China’s total population. Banna in particular is home to the Dai minority or Daizu. Interestingly, the Dai calendar starts with a water splashing festival in April, at a different time to the lunar calendar, meaning Banna is well and truly open for business during the Chinese New Year.
A traditional Dai dance
Additional to my cultural learning, I also got a fascinating introduction to Yunnan’s geography from a driver that I hired for a day to travel to a Pu’er tea planation (more later). Banna, and Yunnan in general, are located on the border with three countries, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. They are also close to Thailand. This means that the region could play a critical role in China’s ongoing One Belt One Road policy. While more commonly known for the One Belt part of the policy, connecting China with Europe through central Asia, the One Road refers to a maritime silk road that will connect Southeast Asia, Oceania and North Africa. With Yunnan positioned to be a pivotal hub for logistics connections to South East Asia, the area should expect to receive significant inward investment over the coming years. Indeed the use of Yunnan as a transit hub is not unprecedented. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Burma Road was a critical supply route for Chinese troops fighting the Japanese. The road started in Burma, at that time a British colony, before terminating in Southern Yunnan province.
Gary (茶博士) taking a break from picking Pu’er tea
Yunnan province is also famous for its tea, in particular Pu’er tea, which is a black tea grown in the the so-called 6 great tea mountains around Xishuangbanna. Pu’er is often fermented and sold in teacakes rather than the traditional tea boxes. It is one of China’s most famous teas, along with Longjing, which is grown here in the mountains around Hangzhou.
Gary Topp is currently immersing himself in Chinese language, history and culture. An avid reader, traveler and tea drinker, he is passionate about the taking the opportunities provided by Alibaba’s businesses to serve small businesses and consumers around the world.
 Jiao zi refers to the dumplings traditionally prepared by families (especially in Northern China at Spring Festival.
Hong bao is the red envelope containing money that is now most commonly given electronically through apps such as Alipay.