‘Unbearable’-Chinese describe life without passports

July 28, 2022 08:21
Photo: Reuters

Jenny is a young woman, educated in the United States, who returned home to take a high-paying job in finance in Shanghai.

“I know how to enjoy my success. But, since the end of March, I had for many weeks been trapped at home, unable to go out, anxious and fearful, sometimes without food. I am ready to give up everything to escape as far away as possible from this hell,” she said.

But it is very hard for her and others like her to obtain a passport and permission to leave. In February, the National Immigration Administration (NIA) said that, to curb the spread of Covid from abroad, it would not issue or renew passports for leisure travel.

In May, it went further and said that it would for the same reason ban “non-essential” travel. It would only approve passports and exit permits for study, scientific research, trade and business and medical issues – but not family reunions or tourism.

In the first half of 2021, the government issued 335,000 passports, two per cent of the total in the first half of 2019. Currently, only 10 per cent of mainland Chinese have a passport.

A retired professor in Beijing said: “I have not seen my daughter for two years. My husband and I wish to join her in Boston but my passport has expired and the authorities refuse to give me a new one. Here it is like living in prison. It is unbearable.”

Reports on Chinese social media described longer questioning at airports, including the reasons for travel and plans for the next exit. One man who returned from Bangkok to Guangzhou said that officers were cutting the corners of passports, rendering them invalid. Another said that police in Hunan were asking residents to hand over their passports for “safekeeping” to be returned “when the pandemic is over”.

In a statement, the NIA denied these reports. “The wider public fully understands and has responded positively to the implementation of a strict entry and exit policy. The change will effectively reduce the risk of reintroducing travellers who have been infected abroad,” it said.

A travel agent in Shanghai said that demand for travel visas rose sharply after the first Covid lockdown in Wuhan in February 2020. The second peak came this spring after the two-month lockdown in Shanghai. “But, with the costs and the restrictions, 90 per cent of them will not succeed,” he said. “I have never seen such demand. With the new restrictions announced in May, people really seem without hope.”

For the first 30 years of the Communist rule, travel overseas was restricted to officials of the government and state companies on exchanges and work visits and people going to study in friendly countries. China had very limited foreign exchange.

After the start of the reform and open-door policy, the government liberalised the policy. Students could go to universities in Japan, North America and Europe provided that they had a letter of acceptance.

In 1991, the government further opened up, allowing group tours to approved destinations in Southeast Asia and, in 1993, to Europe and the U.S. Chinese became the largest source of tourists in the world. In 2012, the country recorded 83 million trips, a five-fold increase from 2002. Travel agencies, hotels, restaurants and retail stores in destination countries restructured their business and product range to cater for this flood of Chinese visitors. They provided new menus, goods, travel itineraries and Mandarin-speaking staff.

This writer remembers a decade ago visiting Paris with his Chinese wife. We went to Galeries Lafayette, a famous department store popular with Chinese visitors. As soon as we entered the front door, two elegant salesladies stepped forward and asked my wife what she wanted to see. They offered a VIP room where she could examine her favoured items at leisure. No-one bothered with her Big-Nose husband, assumed – correctly – to have no spending power.

The next morning we visited the main store of Louis Vuitton on the Champs Elysees. On the pavement outside, looking banefully through the windows, were French people – white, black and Arab. Two burly men guarded the door to keep out those without the necessary means.

Thanks to my wife, we were able to enter the store. We found that nearly all the clients had black hair – Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. Many of the staff spoke Mandarin – white and Chinese French as well as mainland and Taiwan students.

When will Chinese travellers return in numbers again?


A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.