In early December, Prime Minister David Cameron will lead a large British trade delegation to Beijing and appeal for more Chinese investment, students and tourists.
On October 22, about 1,500 restaurant and shop owners and their staff marched through Chinatown in London to protest against raids by the UK Border Agency that closed their premises for several hours as they searched for illegal immigrants. They said the raids had cost them thousands of pounds.
This illustrates vividly the dilemma facing countries around the world, rich and poor, as they decide on how easy they should be in giving visas to the Chinese.
They must weigh the evident economic benefits against the less visible disadvantages – those who overstay, work illegally, commit crime or are involved in human or drug trafficking.
Astonishingly, only 10 countries in the world offer visa-free access to citizens of the world’s second largest economy. No wonder so many Chinese, especially those in the private sector, are eager to obtain another passport through outright purchase or investment, including those of small countries, which offer better access than the PRC. It explains why mothers want to give birth in Hong Kong, the US and other countries, so that their children will have a better passport.
According to the 2013 Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index, China ranked 82 out of 93 countries, level with Cameron and Congo and behind Egypt and Vietnam. This is a global ranking of countries according to the freedom of travel their citizens enjoy. The top three are Finland, Sweden and the UK, whose citizens can enter 173 countries without a visa. Citizens of St Kitts & Nevis and of Antigua & Barbuda can enter more than 120 countries.
The economic benefits of Chinese are overwhelming. According to figures from the China Tourism Research College, 94.3 million Chinese will go abroad this year, spending US$117.6 billion, marking increases of 15 percent and 20 percent respectively over 2012 levels. They rank first in the world in both numbers and spending.
Last year they accounted for two thirds of the visitors to the South Korean island of Cheju, where they do not need a visa. Last year, 20,000 went to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, an increase of 77 percent over 2011, prompting the government to sign a mutual visa-free agreement with Beijing that took effect on October 31 this year.
But Mauritius is one of only seven countries in the world that offer such visa-free access to all Chinese. In addition, Bahrain, Jordan and Saipan offer visas on arrival at the border. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, 78 countries offer visa-free access to Chinese who have diplomatic or civil servant (of deputy county chief or above) passports or are traveling in tour groups. But this does not extend to individual PRC citizens.
So why the reticence?
Japan is the best example. It should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this outflow of Chinese money but is not. It has held many rounds with Beijing on the question of visa-free access but the two cannot reach agreement.
Since 1978, Chinese have ranked second to Koreans as the largest group of illegal immigrants in Japan. According to the Japan’s National Police Agency, Chinese accounted for 39.3 percent of crimes committed by foreigners in 2010, more than those of Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Brazilians put together. Among Japanese, 90 percent oppose a relaxation of the visa rules toward Chinese. Public hostility toward them has intensified because of the bitter dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands during the last 15 months.
In 2007, the Seychelles granted visa-free access to Chinese but cancelled it after it discovered a large number of overstayers. It was the same story in Colombia, which granted the status on January that year but cancelled it four months later. Its police discovered 101 Chinese who had entered illegally; the majority had no valid identity documents.
In 2008, Ecuador announced six-month visa-free entry for Chinese. Half a year later, it discovered that less than 4,000 of the 11,000 Chinese who had entered had left. Many were hiding as they waited for a chance to go to the US or Canada. In November, marine police searched a cargo ship and found 47 illegal Chinese. On December 1, the government cancelled the visa-free policy. In July 2012, the New Zealand Immigration Bureau investigated 1,800 Chinese students in the country and found that 279 had submitted false or misleading documents.
Historical experience has taught developed countries to be especially suspicious of individual applicants from five provinces – Fujian, Guangdong, Hebei, Henan and Shanxi. Their chances of obtaining such a visa are low.
So, while David Cameron will express eloquent words of welcome to Chinese during his visit, the staff of his Border Agency – and those of other immigration services around the world – will be no less vigilant. That miserly list of 10 countries will not grow longer any time soon.