Chinese Tourists Flock to the Borders, Potentially Spreading Coronavirus Outbreak Worldwide

A stewardess arranges suitcases on a high-speed train from Beijing to Nanchang on December
Jia Tianyong/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Travel bookings surged in China on Tuesday after the National Immigration Administration announced passport applications will once again be processed as of January 8, 2023. The policy change ends years-old travel restrictions just as the biggest coronavirus wave of the entire pandemic sweeps across China. Several other countries, such as Japan and India, announced their own restrictions on Chinese travelers in response.

Some Chinese provinces are now reporting millions of coronavirus infections in a single day, as an even more infectious variant of the highly contagious Omicron strain spreads like wildfire through a population with very little natural immunity, thanks to years of dictator Xi Jinping’s brutal “zero Covid” citywide lockdowns.

This would seem like an odd time to loosen (or, as the Chinese Communist Party likes to say, “optimize”) travel restrictions, unless one is determined to ensure the incredibly contagious strain of coronavirus ravaging one’s population is spread as quickly as possible across the world, to ensure China is not the only country to suffer its economy-crushing symptoms.

Nevertheless, China announced the end of mandatory quarantine for inbound travelers on Monday, and on Tuesday it began ramping up its passport machinery for the big Lunar New Year travel season, as reported by the state-run Xinhua news service:

The National Immigration Administration issued a notice on Tuesday, saying that the optimized policies and measures include the resumption of accepting and approval of Chinese citizens’ applications for ordinary passports for the purposes of tourism and visiting friends abroad starting from the date.

The administration will also resume the processing of endorsements for Chinese mainland residents to visit the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for tourism and business purposes, as well as the issuance of exit-and-entry permits of the People’s Republic of China and exit-and-entry permits for border control areas, the notice said.

Services related to the application for ordinary visas, stay permits, and residence permits by foreigners will be resumed, the notice said, adding that expedited procedures may be applied for in case of urgent need.

The BBC reported a “spike in traffic” of up to 1000% at Chinese travel sites, which apparently made Japan and India nervous enough to require negative coronavirus tests and brief quarantine periods from Chinese travelers.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said China’s “lack of information-sharing and transparency” about the coronavirus, and the “huge discrepancies” between tallies of infections and fatalities from various sources, compelled Japan to take steps to “prevent the rapid increase of infections in this country.”

The BBC quoted Chinese social media users who were stunned by their government’s sudden enthusiasm for international travel in the middle of a gigantic coronavirus wave, which they know is much more deadly than Beijing wants to admit:

“I’m happy about it but also speechless. If we’re doing this [reopening] anyway – why did I have to suffer all the daily Covid tests and lockdowns this year?” said Rachel Liu, who lives in Shanghai.

She said she had endured three months of lockdown in April – but nearly everyone in her family had become infected in recent weeks.

She said her parents, grandparents and partner – living across three different cities in Xi’an, Shanghai and Hangzhou – had all come down with fever last week.

Many have also expressed concern online about borders reopening as Covid cases peak.

“Why can’t we wait until this wave passes to open up? The medical workers are already worn out, and old people won’t survive two infections in one month,” read one top-liked comment on Weibo.

Also on Tuesday, China’s National Health Commission downgraded Covid-19 to a Class B infectious disease, changing its name from “novel coronavirus pneumonia” to “novel coronavirus infection.” 

These changes were ostensibly based on the Omicron strain being less dangerous than the original Wuhan coronavirus. Among other ramifications, the downgrade of Covid-19 to Class B makes it procedurally easier for the Chinese government to lift travel restrictions.


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