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How Europeans react to China’s zero-Covid policy

- By Florian Trauner

- Original article here


At the Communist Party Congress in October 2022, China’s President Xi Jinping announced that the zero-Covid strategy is here to stay. In his words, zero-Covid is a ‘people’s war to stop the spread of the virus’. China’s zero-Covid strategy has become highly controversial. In reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese authorities have installed visa restrictions and strict quarantine rules to prevent foreigners from introducing new infections to the country. Noticeably, Covid-19 pandemic border and travel restrictions were kept in place when most other countries were moving towards opening up again.

In the first year after the outbreak, the Zero-Covid strategy allowed China to house much fewer victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. The strategy, however, has also had major costs and side effects. More contagious Covid-19 variants have made the containment difficult and costly from an economic perspective, requiring an increasing number of (local) lockdowns to keep infections at bay. Furthermore, the Zero-Covid strategy meant to shield China from the rest of the world has had far-reaching implications for those individuals keen to visit or exit the country.

In a recent article for the International Spectator, I analyse how EU citizens living in China or EU citizens traveling to China have sought to deal with the consequences of the Chinese visa restrictions and quarantine rules. The research shows just how much China’s zero-Covid policy has been a disruption for EU-Chinese visa travel. Prior to the pandemic, travelling between the EU and China had considerably increased over the years – in both directions. In 2018, EU residents made 1.75 million trips to China, which corresponds to the eleventh most popular destination outside of the EU. Regarding the other direction of travelling, 2.8 million Schengen visas were issued for Chinese applicants in 2019.

These exchanges have largely come to a halt during the pandemic: the number of Schengen visas for Chinese applicants decreased to just under 25,000 in 2021. Europeans keen to travel to China could enter China only on the basis of two reasons: (i) due to an emergency humanitarian need or (ii) if in possession of an additional Chinese welcome letter issued only to companies for senior staff such as mangers or technical experts. With going in and out becoming highly difficult, many Europeans that were in China left the country. Between 40 and 50 per cent of all EU expats are estimated to have left China in the first year of the pandemic. Furthermore, European-run enterprises in Chinas often had hard choices in view of difficulties to bring in new or replace existing European workforce. Going online, whenever possible, or localising staff were two frequently chosen strategies. Undoubtedly, airline companies were particularly hard hit by this Chinese policy: they had to reduce their flights and install new testing centres in transit areas. And in case their customers brought in infections, they risked facing sanctions in terms of cancelling inbound flights.

Overall, the travel restrictions imposed in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to have long(er)-lasting effects. Lower numbers of Europeans living in or travelling to China (and vice versa) imply that transnational expertise decreases, and networks loosen. This will have a negative effect on business and policy links, research communities and student exchanges. Furthermore, Beijing’s response to the pandemic has reinforced a perception that the EU-China relationship has become asymmetrical. Such a perception is not entirely new in EU political and economic circles, yet it has thus far concerned primarily trade and economic issues. In conclusion, China’s establishment of a ‘great paper wall’ towards the outside world during the pandemic has enlarged this debate to questions of visa travelling and people-to-people exchanges.

Florian Trauner is Jean Monnet Chair at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel,

Co-Director of BIRMM, and

Visiting Professor at the College of Europe

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