China scoffed at being subject to early coronavirus travel restrictions. Now it’s enacting its own

March 4, 2020, 9:49 AM UTC

On Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Iran announced that hundreds of Chinese citizens there will be evacuated back to China amid the coronavirus outbreak in Iran. It was a startling indication of the virus’s rising threat around the world and of China’s emergence as a sort of safe haven from the coronavirus, just weeks after being a hotbed.

When the coronavirus first cropped up in earnest in January, countries around the world—from the United States to Australia to Russia—scrambled to close their borders to travelers from China. Beijing criticized such moves at the time. “Some countries, the U.S. in particular, have inappropriately overreacted,” a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said of the travel restrictions in early February. But now the tables have turned. As China sees its coronavirus caseload decline, officials are taking steps to reduce the risk of travelers to China reintroducing the virus.

In recent days, cities and municipalities across China have instituted their own mandatory quarantine measures for Chinese citizens and foreign nationals arriving from countries like Iran, South Korea, Italy, and Japan that have been hit worst by the global spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Beijing’s city government said on Tuesday that anyone from countries that have been “severely affected” by the virus will now have to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine.

Some local governments are even urging Chinese passport holders living abroad to not return home for the time being for fear they might bring infections back into China.

The government of Qingtian, a small county in China’s southeastern province of Zhejiang, urged Chinese citizens abroad to “not to come home without careful consideration.” The county had recently reported eight new cases of coronavirus from Chinese nationals who had just returned from Italy. In total, Chinese nationals living overseas have imported at least 13 cases into China.

The decisions on how to treat high-risk arrivals seem to fall in line with recent central government orders that give local governments the authority to quarantine and employ “other prevention measures” as they see fit.

In addressing the coronavirus threat posed by visitors, China is not discerning between citizens and foreigners. “We treat Chinese and foreign nationals alike,” said China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Monday. “[These measures] are effective in stemming the cross-border spread of the virus and conducive to prevention and control efforts in China and other countries.”

Just weeks ago, China was reporting thousands of new coronavirus infections every day; on Wednesday, it said it had identified 143 new cases. The top official in Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the outbreak, even said on Monday that authorities had the virus “under strong control.”

Yet the virus’s spread continues to escalate in places like the United States and across Europe, putting China’s overseas populations in a more precarious situation.

In total, there are roughly 11.8 million Chinese nationals living abroad, according to the United Nations’ World Migration Report. There are over a million Chinese nationals living in South Korea, nearly 400,000 in Japan, 300,000 in Italy, and likely at least a few thousand living in Iran—all countries the Chinese government has recently labelled high-risk.

The strict measures imposed on overseas Chinese if they return home is a new stressor for a population that’s reportedly been subject to more discrimination in their adopted countries amid the outbreak.

Authorities in China seem to recognize the strain the restrictions may place on their citizens abroad.

“What cannot be broken is the flesh and blood relationships between overseas Chinese and their families in their hometowns,” the Qingtian county statement read.

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—Before coronavirus, there were SARS and MERS. Do epidemics ever really end?

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