Is the era of free movement for Chinese citizens coming to an end?

Will the world ever see Chinese tourists again?
Will the world ever see Chinese tourists again?
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shino
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For people in China, being able to travel abroad is a freedom that wasn’t granted to them until the 1990s, when late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms prompted the country to open up to the outside world. But with the arrival of the pandemic, this freedom to travel has vanished at an alarming speed.

China was able to bring covid-19 under control early in 2020, allowing for a relatively normal life within the country. But the spread of the more contagious omicron this year brought back draconian domestic measures, including a lengthy lockdown in Shanghai. Despite growing domestic and global criticism of China’s zero-covid policy, Chinese president Xi Jinping this month emphasized the need for officials to stick with and defend Beijing’s approach.

Citing that speech, China’s immigration authorities last week said that they will strictly limit “non-essential” outbound travel and will take a rigorous approach to issuing travel documents. Chinese citizens will need to have “essential” reasons such as study, business operations, or medical needs to get the necessary documents.

Though China has had a stringent outbound travel policy and strict entry quarantines throughout the pandemic, last week’s announcement comes as the country has seen an uptick in interest in emigration amid the chaos of this year’s lockdowns. The emphasis has sparked concerns about whether overseas travels will now become even more difficult. Many Chinese internet users are already complaining about having been denied a passport even with a valid reason to travel, creating a black market where agents forge additional documents to bolster passport applications, according to Chinese website Sixth Tone. Only 335,000 passports were issued in the first half of 2021, or around 2% of the number issued in the same period in 2019.

“As with all such announcements, it remains to be seen how they will be enforced…Nevertheless, it seems to be in keeping with many new regulations and increased enforcement of restrictions on PRC [People’s Republic of China] citizens’ global interactions,” said James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown.

A short history of China’s travel boom

Travel was a novel concept for most Chinese until the 1980s, before which even traveling within the country often needed approval from one’s work unit, which had say over most aspects of people’s lives in the pre-reform era. It was mostly government officials or state firm executives who could travel abroad. But the era of private travel began after Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia became the first three destinations Chinese citizens were allowed to visit in the 1990s under bilateral tourism agreements, and passports became easier to get, at least for the Han majority.

By 2012, Chinese travelers were spending $100 billion on international travel, making them the world’s top tourism spenders. In 2019, Chinese travellers made 155 million trips abroad, with Japan and Thailand the top destinations, and splashed around $255 billion, or 20% all international tourism spending, according to the World Tourism Organization. But the pandemic has brought the country’s outbound travels to a standstill, with only around 26 million overseas trips made by Chinese citizens in 2021, according to industry association China Tourism Academy.

Nor has the freedom to travel been uniform across China. Ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet have long faced difficulties in getting passports, according to Human Rights Watch, which finds that most ordinary Tibetans largely have not had passports since 2012.

Growing isolation

The restriction on overseas travels comes as Beijing is seemingly increasingly turning inward. In addition to its firmly closed borders, China gave up hosting rights for the 2023 Asian Cup finals, citing its covid situation; some Chinese universities have withdrawn from international rankings; and the country appears to be seeing a growing rejection of English-language teaching.

Still, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students continue to study in the US and the UK.

“Given what seems to be a push by the party-state in China to cut off Chinese scholars, students, travelers, businessmen and others from international contact, it is important for the US and other democratic nations not to do the same, but rather to increase outreach and keep the doors open for exchange of ideas and people-to-people contacts,” said Millward. “This will benefit people in the US, in China, everywhere.”