22 October 2016
A foreign passport doesn’t protect its holder in China if he or she chooses to enter the country using a Chinese permit (inset) that acknowledges them to be a Chinese national. Photo: Xinhua
A foreign passport doesn’t protect its holder in China if he or she chooses to enter the country using a Chinese permit (inset) that acknowledges them to be a Chinese national. Photo: Xinhua

Overseas Chinese at own risk in using China re-entry permits

Last week, two Hong Kong journalists were sentenced to prison in China. The similarity of their case to that of the five disappearing/reappearing booksellers grabbed public attention since these two men, too, were accused of selling Hong Kong publications in China.

One issue raised by this case is that of travel to China by individuals with foreign passports but choose to use China-issued travel permits that identify them as Chinese nationals.

James Wang, who was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, is the holder of an American passport but traveled to Shenzhen on a Chinese permit.

The State Department spokesman, John Kirby, reported last week that since Wang’s arrest in 2015, “we have asked our Chinese counterparts repeatedly for permission to visit him, including permission to attend his trial. Those requests have all been denied.”

By contrast, at the same press conference, Kirby reported on the situation of Sandy Phan-Gillis, another US citizen detained in China and now awaiting trial.

Unlike Wang, Phan-Gillis has been regularly visited by U.S. diplomats. China recognizes her as an American citizen and has kept the US informed of her case, recently informing the State Department that she will be tried in the Nanning Intermediate People’s Court.

The difference in treatment between the Wang and Phan-Gillis cases is stark.

In one case, China doesn’t acknowledge any US standing because he didn’t enter the country using his American passport. In the other case, China allows monthly consular visits by American diplomats.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Phan-Gillis will be exonerated in court. We don’t yet know the charges and what evidence will be presented.

But we do know that American officials at the highest levels, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have brought her case up with Chinese officials on more than one occasion.

The Wang case is but the latest example of China exercising jurisdiction over ethnic Chinese who are nationals of other countries.

This is being done on a large scale in the case of Chinese Canadians and Chinese Australians.

It has rarely been pointed out that what China is doing is counter to its own nationality law.

This is because, in 1996, China issued “Explanations” by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress as to what this law means when applied to Hong Kong.

So the law means one thing in mainland China and a different thing in Hong Kong. This is highly unusual and worthy of study by international legal experts.

In the run-up to the handover by Britain to China in 1997, a significant percentage of the Hong Kong population fled overseas to escape Communist rule.

More went to Canada than any other country, but significant numbers also went to Australia, the United States, New Zealand and other western countries.

After 1997, many of them returned to Hong Kong, armed with a foreign passport, which they thought would protect them.

However, as China grew in importance, the ease of travel provided by a re-entry permit meant that a great many kept two travel documents: a foreign passport which they used for travel overseas, and a home-return permit that they used for travel to the mainland.

They wanted the best of both worlds.

Now, they are learning that there is a price to pay for this. A foreign passport doesn’t protect them in China if they enter the country using a Chinese permit that acknowledges them to be a Chinese national. Given the choice, it is far wiser to use the foreign passport. 

Increasingly, however, China is not allowing people a choice.

We have now learned that Canadian-born Chinese with Hong Kong parents are being told they are Chinese nationals and not allowed to travel to China on their Canadian passports, but must use a Chinese permit.

The Diplomat in July published an article saying that Chinese visa authorities “are demanding Canadians of Chinese descent apply as Chinese nationals when traveling to China”.

The author, Cal Wong, described himself as a Hong Kong-born Australian and said that he, too, had “experienced the same treatment by Chinese visa authorities”.

Canadians, Australians and others are being treated as Chinese citizens by China.

It is time that individuals understand that the government that issued their passport cannot protect them unless they actually use the passport to enter China.

It is also time for the governments concerned to take a stronger stand vis-à-vis China where their passport holders’ rights are concerned, including the right to travel to China using a passport.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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