China restricts overseas travel, ostensibly to keep COVID at bay

Domestic News

China’s top immigration authority has announced stricter curbs on “non-essential” international travel by citizens.

Image via Xinhua.

China will “strictly limit” its citizens from traveling outside the country for “non-essential” reasons, the National Immigration Administration (NIA) said in a statement on Thursday, escalating efforts to eradicate the country’s worst outbreak of COVID since the start of the pandemic.

The announcement cited the need to prevent people from bringing the virus into China without providing any further details, though authorities will likely add onto the existing measures that have heavily limited people’s movement within and into the country.

  • Only 74 million international travelers entered and exited the Chinese mainland last year, almost a 79% drop compared with pre-pandemic levels in 2019.
  • China tightened scrutiny over issuing and renewing passports to stop “non-urgent and unnecessary” cross-border travel last July, and issued only 335,000 passports in the first half of 2021 — a measly 2% of the total for the same period in 2019.
  • Rumors that authorities have clipped passports to prevent people from traveling have swirled on social media, after some passengers arriving in Guangzhou aboard a flight from Bangkok posted online.

The curbs are yet another sign that Beijing is buckling down on its COVID-zero policy: Yesterday, we reported on the forced-entry disinfections and the suspension of the last two subway lines that were still operating in Shanghai.

  • Last week, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 vowed to uphold the government’s uncompromising COVID-zero strategy despite a significant drop in new infections.
  • Japanese bank Nomura estimates that 41 Chinese cities with a population of almost 300 million are under partial or complete lockdowns.
  • Chinese cities canceled Advanced Placement (AP) exams for students applying to study at universities abroad, a move likely to further limit outbound flows over the coming year.

Some fear COVID-zero is only isolating China even further. “China cannot develop in isolation of the world and nor can the world develop without China,” vice president Wáng Qíshān 王岐山 said just six months ago. “China will not waver in its resolve to deepen reform and expand opening up.”

  • “Beijing’s latest move to combat COVID: restrict foreign travel by Chinese nationals. Haijin Edict, v. 2!” Marcus Brauchli, prominent journalist and co-founder of North Base Media, wrote on Twitter.

The topic is trending on Weibo. A few reactions:

  • “This is nonsense,” said one Weibo user from Beijing.
  • “I’m starting to get anxious. There are so many people walking away that even the blind can see it,” said one user from Shanghai.
  • “Is there still a chance to return to China in this life?😭😭😭,” asked one user from the United States. “They have announced that they don’t want you,” replied a user in Jiangsu.

Meanwhile, officials in Beijing have denied rumors of a lockdown, after the Chinese capital reported 35 locally transmitted cases in the previous 24 hours on Thursday. Some residents are rushing to stock up on goods, but Anthony Tao — a longtime Beijing resident and the managing editor of SupChina — has not caved in to buy his bag of rice.

Nadya Yeh