China To Open Its Borders, Marking End of Zero-COVID Isolation

China will drop quarantine requirements for international travelers starting January 8, 2023. The government also announced a host of other travel-easing measures. The changes effectively end China’s three-year period of self-imposed semi-isolation, adopted to prevent the spread of coronavirus within its borders. The changes do not necessarily mark the advent of open travel to and from China, as a number of countries—notably, the United States and Japan—have instituted restrictions on Chinese travelers, ostensibly to control the spread of new variants that may emerge from China’s ongoing COVID outbreak, which at its peak may have seen 37 million people infected in a single day. At The New York Times, Chang Che, Claire Fu and Amy Chang Chien reported on China’s newly relaxed barriers to entry

Immediately, bookings for flights surged as Chinese headed for the exits and planned long-delayed family reunions. Business groups and economists hailed the easing as an important step toward restoring confidence in China’s prospects. On a popular social media site, the French Embassy in China wrote: “Chinese friends, France welcomes you with open arms!”

[…T]he loosening has unleashed massive pent-up demand. On Tuesday, a day after the changes were announced, bookings for flights from mainland China to popular destinations including Singapore, Japan and South Korea, rose threefold on Group, a Chinese travel-booking company. Reservations for flights to the mainland increased fivefold, according to data provided by the company. 

[…] Zhang Yuhan, a 26-year-old employee at a securities firm in Japan, said that after waking up to the news about the reopening, she immediately started searching for tickets while brushing her teeth and putting makeup on, to try to snag tickets before they sold out.

She said she bought a one-way ticket to Jilin Province for the holiday to see her grandmother, who is recovering from surgery. This would be her first trip home in three years. [Source]

Within China, most reactions to the measure were joyous. The announcement was followed by a surge in bookings for outbound travel from China., a Chinese travel booking website, reported that flight bookings jumped 254% after the announcement. Flights between China and the rest of the world are at only 8% of pre-pandemic levels, but international carriers are rushing to resume normal services. China’s sometimes byzantine quarantine requirements deterred a number of people from attempting to visit family in the country. In one infamous 2022 case, a Los Angeles lawyer spent three months in various quarantine facilities across China before giving up and booking a flight back to the United States. At CNN, Jessie Yeung, Selina Wang, and Cheng Cheng reported on the rejoicing of families who were previously deterred from reuniting by the exorbitant cost of plane tickets and lengthy quarantine periods under the old policy

“Finally, everybody can (live) their normal life,” said one Chinese national living in New York, who hasn’t been home for four years. She called the separation “very painful,” saying several of her family members and the beloved pet dog she grew up with had died during that time.

Her family “missed (my graduation). They missed so many things,” she said. “And I also missed so many things for my family. All my friends, they got married during the pandemic. Even some of them had babies. I feel like I missed everything, I missed the most important points in their lives.”

[…] “It doesn’t matter if I can get back in time for Spring Festival,” said [May Ma, 28,] in South Korea, referring to Lunar New Year. “There is hope after all, I can bear waiting for a little while longer.” [Source]

The change was also hailed by international students, many of whom have been barred from entering China since 2020. In 2018, there were nearly 500,000 international students studying in China. It is unclear how many remain enrolled at Chinese universities. At The Washington Post, Niha Masih and Joyce Lau reported on the potential return of the tens of thousands of international students who have been denied entry into China since 2020

Outside China, Monday’s announcement gave hope to tens of thousands of international students who have spent nearly three years locked out of the country and the universities where they are enrolled. This group, which has been advocating under the hashtag #TakeUsBackToChina, has faced difficulty in receiving visas, booking flights or getting on to locked-down campuses.

[…] Shahroz Khan, 22, a medical student from India, had been studying in China when he returned to his home country in 2020. He had no idea that the Chinese border would remain closed for years and that he would not be able to return to campus. He ended up completing his degree online but still needs to return to China to complete an internship requirement.

“For the past 2½ years, we have heard the same reply: Either there is a lockdown or restrictions or rise in cases,” he said by phone from India.

[…] “The inconsistent treatment of international students has been a soft-power failure for China,” said Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank who is now chair of the Milken Institute Asia Center. [Source]

Although China’s quarantine policy is set to end on January 8, inbound travelers have already protested against mandatory quarantine upon disembarking in China. At The Wall Street Journal, Sha Hua and Rachel Liang reported on two Nanjing protests that forced authorities to concede to passengers’ demands

The group refused to board the bus that would have taken them to a hotel for five days of enforced isolation. After a back and forth during which some participants repeatedly chanted “no quarantine,” the authorities relented and let the travelers go home directly, said 21-year-old student Jessica Li, who flew into Nanjing from Seoul on Sunday evening. 

[…] A similar incident three hours later in the same city, this time involving passengers on a flight from Tokyo, ended with the travelers being allowed to go home after signing a pledge that they would be responsible for all risks associated with bypassing hotel quarantine, said 28-year-old Akira Wang, a marketing professional. 

[…] Ms. Li, who spent the past six months studying in South Korea, said her fellow passengers organized themselves in a chat group on WeChat, China’s do-everything app, before taking off and agreed to band together to head off a stay in quarantine.  

[…] Mr. Wang and his fellow travelers weren’t initially as successful—authorities forced them to board the quarantine bus at the airport. But when they arrived at the designated hotel, the passengers refused to enter. After a 90-minute debate, the staff backed down and allowed the group to go home once they had signed the agreement to accept all responsibility for skipping quarantine.  [Source]

Chinese travelers looking to head abroad may yet still face restrictions on their movement. Morocco has banned all Chinese travelers and South Korea has temporarily adopted visa limits. Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, the United States, Taiwan, Japan, India, and Canada will all require negative tests, either prior to departure or upon arrival. The testing demands mirror China’s continued demand that all incoming international passengers have a negative PCR test result within 48 hours of their departure. The restrictions on Chinese travelers come amidst increased worries about the paucity of data about China’s current COVID outbreak and the potential for the rise of new variants. Bloomberg reported that nearly 50% of the passengers on a flight from China to Milan tested positive for the virus upon landing in Italy. Most were asymptomatic. At The Guardian, Melissa Davey reported on international health experts’ response to the lack of clarity on China’s COVID situation

Prof Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases physician, said a lack of transparency about Covid in China was worrying because “we don’t know what variants are circulating in China at the moment … [and] whether those variants are different in terms of their response to vaccination.”

[…] The WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has called on China to share data and conduct relevant studies to help the world understand which Covid variants are circulating. At a briefing on 21 December, Ghebreyesus said: “WHO is very concerned over the evolving situation in China with increasing reports of severe disease.

“In order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground, WHO needs more detailed information on disease severity, hospital admissions, and requirements for ICU support.” [Source]

The restrictions are controversial even within the countries that have imposed them. CNN reported that Australia’s top medical officer advised against their adoption in a letter to the country’s public health minister: “I do not believe that there is sufficient public health rationale to impose any restriction or additional requirements on travelers from China.” At CNN, Jessie Yeung reported further on public health experts’ opinions on the restrictions on Chinese travelers

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged the risk of a new variant emerging in “unvaccinated populations.”

“Even though (in China) officially they have 90% of the population vaccinated with two doses of the inactivated vaccines, you still have a large percentage of the elderly who are not vaccinated … and many of the people who are vaccinated did so more than six months ago, so their antibody levels already are very low,” he said. “So we can’t rule out the possibility that new variants can indeed emerge in China and spread to other parts of the world.”

[…] US officials have also expressed concerns about China’s lack of transparency surrounding the recent surge in cases, particularly the absence of genome sequencing information that could help detect new strains of the coronavirus.

However, GISEAD, a global virus database, said Chinese authorities had been submitting more genomic information from recent samples — and that these seem to match the variants that are already circulating globally. [Source]

The Chinese government immediately branded the restrictions on outbound travelers discriminatory and dismissed international concern over potentially untracked variants. An anonymous expert told state-run outlet Global Times that “although China had stopped publishing daily tallies of COVID-19 cases, scientists never suspended monitoring of prevailing variants circulating in the country.” At The New York Times, Alexandra Stevenson reported on the Chinese government’s strong protest against what it terms the “manipulation” of COVID measures to “achieve political goals”

“We firmly oppose the practice of manipulating Covid prevention and control measures to achieve political goals, and will take corresponding measures in accordance with the principle of reciprocity according to different situations,” Ms. Mao said. She did not elaborate. Even after China eases its travel restrictions, the government will still require incoming travelers to show a negative result on a polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., test, taken within 48 hours before departure.

[…] This Sunday, for the first time since early 2020, when Covid-19 first appeared in China, the government will drop quarantine rules for visitors to China from abroad and ease restrictions on incoming flights. It has also restarted processing passport applications by Chinese citizens for tourism abroad. Outbound flight bookings surged by nearly 300 percent on Dec. 27 when the government announced the changes to its border restrictions, as many people began to plan trips abroad to see family and simply travel, according to data from Group, a travel-booking company.

[…] China’s state-controlled media has accused the United States and European countries of applying a “double standard” to China and of using restrictions as a “political card.”

“It seems that, according to the political logic of some people in Europe and the United States, no matter if China ‘opens up’ or ‘doesn’t open up,’ what it does is wrong,” read one commentary by China’s state broadcaster, CCTV. [Source]


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