China's zero-Covid border rules going nowhere this year
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China's zero-Covid border rules going nowhere this year

Travellers carrying luggages walk at a railway station, ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing on Friday. (Reuters photo)
Travellers carrying luggages walk at a railway station, ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing on Friday. (Reuters photo)

HONG KONG: China is unlikely to ease pandemic-related border controls any time soon, despite mounting calls from an international community shut out by strict zero-Covid rules for nearly two years.

The National Immigration Administration hinted as much on Thursday, as a spokesman called on people to reduce cross-border activities this year if the trip was "not urgent, not necessary".

"The pandemic has not been brought under control in foreign countries. It remains a challenging job for China to prevent imported cases," spokesman Chen Jie told a press conference in Beijing.

"We should cherish China's hard-won success [in controlling Covid-19] and reduce cross-border flows," Chen said in response to a query on whether entry-exit controls would be loosened this year.

The stringent border policy, together with strict quarantine measures, was first put in place in March 2020, when China closed its borders to nearly all travellers as the coronavirus pandemic started spreading throughout Europe.

The rules have remained largely in place since then, helping authorities to contain the disease at home even as cases soared worldwide. However, they have also severely hindered international communication.

China limits outbound travel to protect against Covid-19 variants

The harsh border restrictions have been sharply criticised by international business groups, and have increased the risk of a foreign talent exodus.

Germany's acting ambassador Frank Rueckert last week singled out China's travel and quarantine restrictions as factors hampering trade ties.

Of nearly 600 companies surveyed last year by the German Chamber of Commerce in China, 72% said the zero-tolerance approach affected mutual understanding. More than half said such policies deter foreign investment, while 45% said they would lower China's economic growth.

A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in September also found that restoring regular visa services and travel channels for executives remained a top priority for the US business community.

China has since launched the US-China Fast Track Travel Channel Programme, which cuts the wait time for PU, or permission, letters from local authorities for travellers and their dependants. This will now take five to 10 business days for eligible US firms, whereas earlier it could take up to two months. However, applicants must provide a detailed explanation of why it is urgent and necessary that they travel to China, which is subject to approval.

Cross-border travel by foreigners plunged by 66% last year, according to official Chinese data.

Chen said China had facilitated travel last year for personnel involved in certain business, trade and technology activities, especially Chinese nationals taking part in the global pandemic prevention work. Similar special arrangements will continue this year, he said.

"We'll not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. We'll be flexible."

It was widely expected that China would not ease Covid-19 controls ahead of three mega events this year.

The 2022 Beijing Winter Games opens next week, with the annual "two sessions" - national conferences of China's top legislative and political advisory bodies - due in March. Come autumn and it will be time for the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party, where President Xi Jinping is expected to celebrate China's effective pandemic control under his watch and cement his leadership.

"Safeguarding national security is always our top priority," Chen said. "We will continue to work hard and pave the way for a successful 20th party congress."

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