Netizen Voices: China Tightens Restrictions on Passports and Outbound Travel Amid COVID

After nearly two and a half years of pandemic-related restrictions limiting inbound travel to China, the Chinese government is now increasing restrictions on outbound travel, as well. On Thursday, the National Immigration Administration stated that it would “strictly limit” unnecessary overseas travel by Chinese citizens. As COVID cases rise and dozens of Chinese cities remain at various levels of lockdown, the government is resorting to more drastic policy measures in an attempt to control the Omicron outbreak. Thomas Hale from Financial Times described the new announcement and its link to the government’s pandemic control strategy:

The National Immigration Authority’s announcement, made on social media platform WeChat, also referred to the need to prevent people bringing the virus into China and comes on top of existing measures that heavily limit movement within and into the country.

[…] Chinese citizens were already advised to avoid all non-essential travel, but the latest announcement suggests a greater degree of strictness in border control and is likely to reflect concerns that citizens who go abroad could bring the virus back with them.

The immigration authority statement called for “strict implementation of entrance and exit policies, [to] strictly limit non-essential outbound travel activities by Chinese citizens”. However, it provided no details of what this would mean in practice. [Source]

According to one passenger’s social media post, border guards in Guangzhou clipped the passports of some arriving passengers, rendering the documents invalid for future travel. At Radio Free Asia, Hsia Hsiao-hwa described how these new restrictions on outbound travel may have begun as early as April, when police ordered Chinese citizens in Hunan to hand over their passports

A March 31 notice from the Baisha police department in the central province of Hunan posted to social media ordered employers to hand over the passports of all employees and family members to police, “to be returned after the pandemic.”

An officer who answered the phone at the Baisha police department confirmed the report, and said the measure is being rolled out nationwide.

“According to official requirements, [passports] must be handed over because of the pandemic,” the officer said.

“It’s everywhere, not just Hunan. It’s across the whole country,” they said. “Anyone with a passport has to hand it over, not just people who have an employer.”

“If people don’t hand them over … then they have to expect to be investigated,” the officer said. [Source]

The hashtag #SeverelyRestrictChineseCitizens’Non-EssentialOutboundTravel has received as many as 120 million views on Weibo, although the number of comments is only 32,000, and sharing functions appear to be disabled for some users. CDT editors have compiled and translated some online comments about the outbound travel restrictions:

陈思扬CHEN:“I don’t know what this problem is you’re all talking about. In China, people are free to come and go as they please.”

[…] 四季de风:You can’t bear to be split from the Motherland for even one moment.

SkyBluePink_lila:If you want to lock it down, just lock it down. Once again, they’re using pandemic controls as a pretext. The virus must be so grateful for all the attention it’s getting that it has no choice but to stay here forever.

[…] Edric66:First it was “malicious homecomings,” now it’s “non-essential outbound travel.”

[…] JLLiberty:Unless absolutely essential, don’t fall in love; unless absolutely essential, don’t get married; unless absolutely essential, don’t have kids; unless absolutely essential, don’t buy a home; unless absolutely essential, don’t buy a car; unless absolutely essential, don’t play the stock market; unless absolutely essential, don’t invest; unless absolutely essential, don’t “lie flat”; unless absolutely essential, don’t sing their praises.

Ben9869:I recall that there were similar policies during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

[…] PayneCT二号机:“Non-essential” has become their new catch-all catchphrase. [Chinese]

As news of the passport and travel restrictions spread, the government tried to downplay the measures and deny the “rumors.” On Friday, Beijing immigration officials released a circular referencing a relevant section of China’s immigration law and reminding citizens that “the internet does not exist outside of the law,” and that “fabricating, disseminating, and spreading rumors, or disturbing the social order” would have serious legal consequences.

But many netizens are running away from government warnings, metaphorically and literally, in a phenomenon represented by the character “润” (rùn). A homonym of the English word “run,” it has been used as a codified way to discuss emigration online without alerting censors—although various permutations of the term have now been censored on the Chinese internet and social media. The Economist described how increasingly stringent COVID restrictions have motivated many of China’s young and educated elite to search for ways to “run,” or emigrate, from China:  

On WeChat, a popular messaging app, searches for “immigration” increased more than fourfold between early and mid-April. Users of Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, published more than 78,000 posts with the run character in March and April (see chart). Spikes in their frequency coincided with traumatic events in Shanghai, such as when an asthma patient was refused medical treatment and died, or when videos of infected children separated from their parents spread online.

“It’s like an alarm bell has gone off,” says Miranda Wang, a young Chinese video-producer who moved to Shanghai after studying in Britain. The Chinese metropolis used to feel like a global city, similar to London, she says. But after more than 50 days of lockdown, Ms Wang has begun researching ways to leave. “Now we realise, Shanghai is still China’s Shanghai,” she says. “No matter how much money, education or international access you have, you cannot escape the authorities.”

Chinese internet users have crowdsourced a repository of run-philosophy readings on GitHub, a platform for open-source coding and rare refuge from censorship in China. There they discuss why to run, where to run and how to run, archiving stories of successful emigration to various countries. To run is not to seek pleasure or profit, one essay states, but to escape a country that is speeding in the wrong direction. “Surely a sheep that has been hurt by beating can try to flee?” it asks. “Therein lies the truth of run.” [Source]

Even before these recent measures, many Chinese citizens found it increasingly difficult to leave China. In 2021, 79 percent fewer people exited China than in pre-pandemic 2019, according to government statistics. In the first half of 2021, China issued 335,000 passports, just two percent of the total number for the same period in 2019. The steep drop was due to the fact that passports are now granted only if one can prove an urgent need to travel abroad. As Zhang Wanqing reported for Sixth Tone, the growing desire to get out of the country has led to a thriving market for fake foreign documents:

For many applicants, there’s only one way to get around the restrictions: fake it. On Chinese social media, users are swapping tips on how to secure a passport by hiring agents to forge job offers or overseas school applications.

Li, a 37-year-old from the eastern Fujian province, is one of them. After her initial passport application was rejected, she hired an agent to provide a fake offer from a foreign kindergarten. She then told the authorities she needed to accompany her child to study abroad.

[…] Lydia Lin, a 36-year-old from Beijing, managed to renew her passport on Sunday after telling officials she plans to attend a Chartered Financial Analyst exam overseas. After verifying that she has a finance degree, the authorities granted her application.

[…] Christina [pseudonym of a Shanghai resident] doesn’t have a finance degree or a child, but she has also been researching ways to circumvent the rules. She’s considering a variety of options, from getting a foreign medical document saying that an in-law is severely ill, to buying a fake job offer from an agent. [Source]

The Chinese government’s pandemic-response measures have regularly targeted inbound travelers, animals, and goods as potential vectors of infection. In the early stages of the COVID pandemic, the government required “full coverage” testing and disinfection of certain frozen food products and imposed a set of import bans on some of them. In January, Beijing officials recommended that residents stop ordering items from overseas, after claiming that one woman had been infected via surface contamination from a foreign parcel. In March, China’s postal service declared that it was conducting nucleic acid testing on all overseas mail and parcels, which would be delivered only 14 to 20 hours after a negative result. In Hong Kong, the government rounded up and culled thousands of hamsters and ordered all pet shops to close when one pet-shop employee tested positive in late December after receiving a shipment of hamsters from the Netherlands. Chinese and foreign experts largely agree that human infection via surface contamination or household pets is extremely rare.

Commenting on the strong public reaction to China’s recent travel restrictions, Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch reminded those on Twitter that Tibetans and Uyghurs have long been subject to similarly arbitrary travel restrictions, well before the pandemic:

Translation by Cindy Carter.

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