By now, every foreigner in China has heard the news that “China has decided to temporarily suspend the entry into China by foreign nationals holding visas or residence permits still valid to the time of this announcement, effective from 0 a.m., 28 march 2020.” (1) Published late last night, this news has spread like wildfire and is causing panic among the foreigner community in China and China-bound foreigners abroad. “Why are they doing this?” “When will it end?” “Will I be able to see my family in China?” “Will they kick out foreigners who are in China now?” “What about China-bound foreigners who are currently stuck in Hong Kong quarantine?” are just some of the questions frantically being asked as people struggle to cope with the abrupt about-face.



Considering the rapidly increasing restrictions put in place to prevent the importation of COVID-19 cases into China, and the opening line of the statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcing the ban, “In view of the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the world,” it’s easy to assume that this ban has been implemented in order to prevent the importation of cases by foreigners into China. However, with the majority of “imported” cases coming from Chinese nationals, 90% according to China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2), and the fact that the statement did not directly state that this ban was being put in place to prevent the importation of cases, an outright ban on foreigners doesn’t seem to make much sense. To better understand the situation, we may want to take a step back and look at what’s been happening around the world in recent days, and I’m not referring to the rise of infection cases.

On Wednesday, President Xi Jinping spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the phone and said, “The virus respects no borders and presents a common challenge to mankind. No country can wall itself off from its impact.” (3)

A day later, just hours before the announcement of the ban, President Xi Jingping delivered a speech during the G20 Extraordinary Leaders' Summit on COVID-19 where he said that in order to make a contribution to stabilizing the global economy, “China will continue to carry out a proactive fiscal policy and stable monetary policy, promote reform and opening-up steadily, ease market access, improve the business environment, increase imports and expand outbound investment.” The president called on G20 members to take joint measures, including reducing tariffs, removing trade barriers and promoting free trade, to send a strong signal to boost the global economy.” (4) “We must comprehensively step up international cooperation and foster greater synergy so that humanity as one could win the battle against such a major infectious disease.” “This is a virus that respects no borders. The outbreak we are battling is our common enemy. All must work together to build a strongest global network of control and treatment that the world has ever seen." (5)


The president participated in the summit, which was in the form of a videoconference, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. LI XUEREN/PANG XINGLEI/XINHUA

Nothing there hinted at China closing off to foreigners. In fact, it seemed like just the opposite. Could it be that the results of the G20 meeting (or that of the G7 which took place just before it) weren’t as expected? When asked by CCTV at a press conference what China expects from the G20 meeting, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang gave the following response:

Currently, COVID-19 is engulfing many parts of the world, endangering the life and health of people in all countries and hitting the world economy pretty hard. The international community expects all parties to work together to combat the pandemic and stabilize the global economy… Under the direct leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has achieved notable results in the pandemic prevention and control and is now actively supporting other countries in their battles against the pandemic, which has been highly praised by the international community. China expects that this virtual summit will deliver positive messages of pooling consensus and taking actions to strengthen solidarity, work together to counter the pandemic and stabilize economy. (6)

These statements over the last few days clearly show China’s position. Taking a self-isolationist stance has not been part of their public communication and the rise of imported cases has been happening for weeks now. So why the drastic sudden change? 

 


A message released on the official Weibo of the US Embassy in China that afternoon also used the term "Wuhan virus" several times. In fact, the day before, the G-7 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors issued a joint statement using the term “new coronavirus”.


Well, yesterday (March 26), the U.S. Ambassador to China tweeted, and published to the official WeChat account of the US Embassy in China, articles one after another, mentioning the term "Wuhan virus". President Trump earlier also again called the new coronavirus "Chinese virus" after he recently said that he would no longer use that term. Among them, the official WeChat of the U.S. Embassy in China released an article entitled "Statement by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo at a press briefing" at 6:00 p.m. on the same day stating, "The unprecedented global challenge of the virus comes as working with our partners is more important than ever. Our online video G7 Ministerial Conference is productive; we will end the crisis together and continue to promote our freedom and good governance shared values." (7)

After attempting to “pick things up” at the video conference of the seven foreign ministers, Pompeo used the term “Wuhan virus” again in subsequent press conferences. Geng Shuang, spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, severely condemned Pompeo for his actions. Geng Shuang said that Pompeo was determined to move against the international consensus and continued to stigmatize China and discredit China's efforts to fight the epidemic, in an attempt to divert attention and pass on his responsibilities. (7) In fact, since March 10th, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang has been actively discouraging this type of rhetoric…

 “Yet despite our need to work together, there have been disturbing reports from around the world about discrimination and stigmatization of the Chinese community. Xenophobia has gone rampant on social media. People who appear to be of Chinese descent have been physically and verbally attacked, and patients have shunned doctors of Chinese descent. And despite its unparalleled response to the crisis, the Chinese government has been attacked by some people out of ideological prejudice. The virus is understandably a source of concern, but it should not be exploited as an excuse for xenophobia or advancing a political agenda. At a time when the world is working hard to contain the spread of the coronavirus, we should guard against the spread of political and racist viruses as well.” (8)

Officials from international health organizations have also repeatedly requested that people stop referring to the virus in this way. According to CCTV reports, on March 18 local time, Michael Ryan, the head of the WHO health emergency program, responded to Trump's attention to the media's claim that the new coronavirus is a “Chinese virus”, saying that the virus has no national borders and does not distinguish race, color, and wealth, use caution in language, and avoid linking viruses to individuals. He added that the 2009 (H1N1) pandemic began in North America, and we didn't call it 'North American Flu.' (9)

If we look more closely at the announcement of the ban issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, its final paragraph states “The suspension is a temporary measure that China is compelled to take in light of the outbreak situation and the practices of other countries.” The “current practices of other countries” is noticeable. Yes, this could mean the failure to implement stricter epidemic prevention and control policies, but they didn’t clear state that anywhere in the announcement when they easily could have. They concluded with “China will stay in close touch with all sides and properly handle personnel exchanges with the rest of the world under the special circumstances” and “The above-mentioned measures will be calibrated in light of the evolving situation and announced accordingly.” Let’s hope the “situation” evolves favorably. Otherwise a temporary ban on foreigners entering China may be the least of our concerns. 

During his speech at the G20, President Xi said “we need to be resolute in fighting an all-out global war against the COVID-19 outbreak.” (5) Those in China have been seeing for months the epidemic prevention and control efforts being referred to in militaristic terms like war, battles, fight, with workers being referred to as soldier, heroes on the frontlines, etc. Xi used the term “global war.” Would it be a stretch to imagine that we could be entering, or maybe are already in, the next World War? Well, Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines one as “a war engaged in by all or most of the principal nations of the world” so you probably won’t be wrong if you wanted to, but this is probably a topic for a different article.

 

 

On the bright side, today, President Xi Jinping spoke with President Trump on the phone, where Xi stated that since the outbreak of the new coronavirus pneumonia epidemic, China has always kept the public, transparent, and responsible attitude in a timely manner to inform the WHO and relevant countries, including the United States, of the epidemic information, including the release of virus gene sequences and other information as soon as possible. He also emphasized that at present, Sino-US relations are at an important juncture. Cooperation between China and the United States is mutually beneficial, while fighting will hurt both sides. Cooperation is the only correct choice. He said he hoped that the United States will take substantive actions to improve Sino-US relations, and the two sides will work together to strengthen cooperation in areas such as epidemic resistance and develop a relationship of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. (10) So if you're still asking "when will this ban on foreigners entering China end?" it looks like the ball's in Trump's court.

Let’s hope for the best and conclude with some practical information for foreigners on the ground in China or those looking to come back.

  • If you have a visa and are in China, based on the current announcement, you don’t have anything to worry about as this only applies to foreigners trying to enter.
  • Current visas/residence permits are not being revoked and the previously announced visa extension policy is still in place.
  • If you had international travel plans, you may want to postpone those if you were hoping to come back.
  • If you’re out of the country and want to come back, unless you’re lucky enough to have a diplomatic visa, or you have a service, courtesy or C-visa, it looks like you’re going to need to apply for a new visa to enter for the time being.
  • Applications for new visas are still being accepted; however, the China Embassy in Los Angeles, for example, has already announced some restrictions so please check with your nearest China embassy for details.

If you need help or have questions, here are some numbers that may be useful or you can also contact the staff at NSIC.

  • Guangdong Hotline: Guangdong Province Multilingual 24-hour Foreigner Service Hotline: 1258088
  • Nanshan Immigration Department: (0755) 8446 6058

 

Sources:

(1) https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1761867.shtml
(2) 外交部:90%的境外输入病例持中国护照,其中40%是留
(3) President Xi Jinping Speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the Phone
(4) Xi stresses key role of G20
(5) Working Together to Defeat the COVID-19 Outbreak
(6) Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang's Regular Press Conference on March 25, 2020
(7) 愤慨!美驻华大使馆2连发,再提所谓“武汉病毒”
(8) Consul General Zhang Ping: In the Global Response to COVID-19, There is No Room for Racism
(9) 美议员竟提数项议案向中国“追责”
(10) 习近平同美国总统特朗普通电话

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