Ban on international travel in China tightened as anger over lockdown mounts

China’s National Immigration Administration, in a statement Thursday, said it would tighten the review process on the issuance of travel documents such as passports, and severely restrict those looking to leave.

The administration justified these measures by claiming the need to “reduce the risk of infection when leaving the country, and carrying the virus when entering the country.” Travel will only be permitted for “essential” purposes, which the administration defines as resuming work, study, business and scientific research, as well as seeking medical care.

According to the announcement, those who need to travel abroad to help fight the epidemic, or relocate disaster relief resources, their applications will be expedited.

Officials did not disclose how the new restrictions would be imposed, or would prevent potential travelers with valid travel documents from leaving.

The new measures mark China’s toughest restrictions on overseas travel in decades, putting further pressure on residents who have endured more than two years of strict Covid-19 controls including citywide lockdowns, mass testing and mandatory quarantines.

“Do not go out unless necessary, leave the country only when necessary, and give birth only when necessary,” a famous comment said in response to the news on the Chinese Twitter-like platform Weibo.

Others have speculated that officials may crack down on travel as more people are looking to escape as fears of new government-imposed lockdowns grow – particularly in the capital, Beijing, where COVID-19 cases are on the rise. These fears have been exacerbated by the chaos and dysfunction that has gripped closed cities such as Shanghai.

“Those who want to flee China are afraid that people’s rights and dignity are nothing in the face of the absolute power of the government (in the midst of the outbreak),” reads one comment on Weibo.

“Are we going back to the Qing Dynasty’s national isolation policy?” Another user wrote, referring to China’s last imperial dynasty whose final years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by the country’s growing isolation from the rest of the world.

ban exit

Outbound travel among ordinary Chinese was still severely restricted until the early 2000s – but it boomed as household incomes rose and the government relaxed rules. Chinese citizens made 670 million overseas trips in 2019, the last normal travel year before the epidemic, according to the country’s immigration department.

But that number has since fallen, with just over 73 million domestic and foreign trips in 2021.

Even before Thursday’s announcement, travel in or out of China was extremely difficult. The borders remain largely closed to outsiders, with only Chinese nationals returning from abroad and those with special visas or residence permits allowed in. Flights are limited and expensive – and all those wishing to enter usually face a strict quarantine of up to 21 days.
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China has also discouraged travel by drastically reducing the number of travel documents issued. It issued just 7.98 million documents in 2021, down from 6% of the documents issued in 2019, according to the Immigration Department – which also announced it would stop renewing passports for “non-essential” travel in February.

Thursday’s restrictions are a slap in the face for Chinese residents married to foreigners. It may also prove another obstacle for students wanting to get into college abroad – who already faced disappointment this week after the US Council of Colleges announced it would cancel Advanced Placement (AP) tests – often seen as an important part of college applications in the states United. – On several sites, citing “widespread Covid restrictions”.

Six weeks of closing

Public frustration has grown steadily over the past few months as authorities across the country have imposed lockdown measures – sometimes for a small number of cases.

According to CNN’s calculations, at least 32 cities across China are now under complete or partial lockdown, affecting up to 220 million people.

Most notably Shanghai, the wealthy financial hub, which has been under citywide lockdown since late March. Throughout April, residents stuck in their homes reported being unable to obtain food, medicine or other essential supplies.

In recent days, complaints have surfaced on social media about community workers forcibly entering people’s homes without permission and damaging their personal belongings during disinfection. One viral video showed residents arguing with police officers trying to get them out of their homes; It is not clear under the policy which residents have been forcibly removed, or where they are being sent.

People wait in long lines at a supermarket on May 12 in Beijing, China.
Fears are growing that the nation’s capital may be next. Beijing authorities have encouraged residents to stay indoors, and have launched several new rounds of mass testing – leading to panic buying in supermarkets, with images showing long queues as residents scrambled to stock up on supplies in lockdown.

Beijing officials denied allegations of an imminent shutdown on Thursday and urged the public not to stockpile food, stressing that there were sufficient supplies available. But their reassurance may not do much good, with public confidence already eroded – especially since Shanghai’s citywide lockdown came just days after authorities there denied any such plans.

“This is a familiar picture,” one Weibo user commented in a video showing Beijing officials trying to calm the audience. Another wrote: “After the lessons learned, who dares to take the risk?”

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