China is restricting citizens from ‘nonessential’ travel overseas to stop importing COVID

May 13, 2022, 11:12 AM UTC

China’s strict COVID lockdowns have trapped people inside their homes and offices in cities like Shanghai, where the local government is tackling a raging Omicron outbreak. But this week China broadened the scope of its lockdown polices, threatening to keep all of China in some sort of national detention.

On Thursday, China’s National Immigration Administration (NIA) announced it would “strictly restrict nonessential departure of Chinese citizens” from the country in order to “strengthen disease control and prevention” across China—essentially grounding Chinese tourists from flight.

Preventing outbound flights won’t help China curtail Omicron clusters already in the country. China reported 7,426 cases Thursday, down from a mid-April peak of over 33,000 daily cases. In Shanghai, residents are enduring their seventh week of citywide lockdown, which has resulted in food shortages, avoidable deaths, supply-chain disruption, and general frustration. In Beijing, residents are panic buying groceries as rumors swirl that the capital may enter a citywide lockdown, too.

China has clamped down on the international mobility of its citizens before. Nine months ago, the NIA announced it would limit passport renewals and issuance to people who need to travel overseas for study or business.

The NIA reiterated its stance on limiting passport issuances Thursday. On social media, some users claim that airport staff in Guangzhou recently clipped the corners off their passports when they arrived back in the country, invalidating the passport. The NIA denied those reports to Reuters, on Friday.

From March to November 2020, China banned non-Chinese citizens from entering the country at all, preventing executives and staff of international firms that had temporarily traveled outside the country from returning to work. China began to ease the complete travel ban in November that year, permitting foreigners with valid work permits to enter the country, but even now arrivals in China are required to undergo strict weeks-long quarantine. The harsh quarantine-on-arrival requirements provide a natural deterrent to outbound tourism. Travelers don’t want to leave China because they don’t want to quarantine when they return.

In October last year, China’s national aviation administration slashed international flight routes by 20% from the year before, curtailing outbound travel even further. According to the NIA, international arrivals and departures tanked 79% in 2021 compared with 2019, before the pandemic began. China’s tight border controls have frustrated international businesses, too.

Meanwhile, China’s restriction on outbound travel has constrained the post-pandemic recoveries of other economies that depend on Chinese tourism, such as Thailand, where Chinese tourists typically account for over a quarter of international visitors.

The World Health Organization criticized Beijing’s restrictive COVID-zero policies this week as Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus lambasted the approach as unsustainable and suggested the country needed to “transition” to a more lenient policy. Beijing’s firewall quickly scrubbed Tedros’s comments—as well as searches for the WHO—from Chinese internet platforms.

The NIA’s sudden decision to further restrict outbound travel shows that China doesn’t plan on abandoning COVID-zero soon, despite what the WHO might advise.

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