China will relax its infamously strict coronavirus restrictions for entry into the country starting Jan. 8, according to a lengthy list of new policies issued Monday by its National Health Commission. It is the most significant move so far to reopen borders that have been all but closed for nearly three years.
Arrivals into China with negative nucleic acid tests will be able to “enter society,” in a drastic change to the current practice, which sees all entrants at airports — foreign visitors and Chinese citizens alike — tested by hazmat-suit-clad workers and ushered onto buses headed for quarantine hotels, where they stay for several days in isolation. Arrivals who continue to test negative will not have their movements restrained by China’s digital health passes.
Air traffic is expected to increase in both directions. Restrictions on the number of flights allowed into Chinese airports will be eased, according to the policies.
Meanwhile, outbound travel for Chinese citizens, who have largely not left their country since 2020, will be “resumed in an orderly manner,” the policies said. Upon release of the news, searches for international air tickets spiked in China, with Thailand, Japan and South Korea emerging as the most popular destinations, Chinese state-affiliated media reported.
The new policies are meant to help the resumption of travel for business, study and family reunions. However, there is no word on whether China will reopen for tourism.
The move comes after an incremental loosening of domestic restrictions on Dec. 7, which did away with the mandatory testing that caused hours-long waits outdoors in the cold, lockdowns that saw people physically barred inside their homes and the use of mass quarantine camps for even mild cases.
Officials previously locked down entire cities in pursuit of China’s “zero covid” strategy, which aimed to completely stop the virus from spreading. Those restrictions led to angry demonstrations in November, which spread fast and wide from universities to factories.
Outside China, Monday’s announcement gave hope to tens of thousands of international students who have spent nearly three years locked out of the country and the universities where they are enrolled. This group, which has been advocating under the hashtag #TakeUsBackToChina, has faced difficulty in receiving visas, booking flights or getting onto locked-down campuses.
China has in recent years emerged as an affordable higher-education destination, attracting nearly half a million students from overseas in 2018.
Shahroz Khan, 22, a medical student from India, had been studying in China when he returned to his home country in 2020. He had no idea that the Chinese border would remain closed for years and that he would not be able to return to campus. He ended up completing his degree online but still needs to return to China to complete an internship requirement.
“For the past 2½ years, we have heard the same reply: Either there is a lockdown or restrictions or rise in cases,” he said by phone from India.
Khan’s university in Jiangsu province had asked students to refrain from trying to come back before February 2023. With the restrictions eased, he hopes to get back to China sooner.
Experts say the country needs to be clear and transparent in its communications and treat international students with compassion.
“The inconsistent treatment of international students has been a soft-power failure for China,” said Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank who is now chair of the Milken Institute Asia Center.
He added that many students had returned to the United States and parts of Europe after those regions opened up. “The contrast with the situation in China is striking,” he said.
Chin said China may continue to draw international students to its low costs and relative quality, but it may have to offer scholarships and financial assistance to be an attractive higher-education destination.
Andy Mok, a research fellow at the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, said China’s coronavirus containment strategy had been successful but “costly in economic, social and emotional terms with foreign students, business executives and tourists largely unable to enter or return to China for several years.” Now, the government’s focus would be on economic recovery with the shift of its covid strategy, he said.
As China loosens its entry rules, countries such as Japan and India are increasing restrictions for travelers from China as cases there soar.
On Tuesday, Japanese media said the authorities will tighten restrictions for those traveling from China. In India, the health minister announced last week that the New Delhi airport had begun testing travelers from some countries, including China.
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