Think Covid’s Messed Up Your Travel Plans? Try Getting Into China.

Leave your partner and children behind. Quarantine for up to a month. Get a Covid-19 vaccine from China if you can find one. And prepare for an anal swab.

Over the past year, people trying to go to China have encountered some of the greatest barriers to entry in the world. To stop the coronavirus, China immediately bans tourists and short-term business travelers and sets strict standards for all other foreigners, including those who have lived there for years.

The restrictions have hampered the operation of many businesses, divided families, and changed the lives of thousands of international students. Global companies say their foreign workforce in the country has fallen sharply.

At a time of tense tension with the United States and other countries, China is protecting itself from the pandemic. At the same time, there is a danger that the world’s second largest economy will be further isolated if key trading partners emerge from its self-imposed slumps.

“When it comes to draconian measures, you will be disenfranchised people who are big fans of China and are not allowed to return to the country where they found their home,” said Alexander Style, the UK owner of a Shanghai-based company that manufactures electric vehicle parts for export who was forced to move to New Jersey with his family.

Other countries have their own travel restrictions, although few are as strict. For example, the United States prohibits foreigners traveling direct from China unless they are green card holders or certain immediate family members of American citizens. It also prohibits foreigners leaving from Europe as well as from Brazil and other countries.

Australia only lets in a few hundred of its citizens and permanent residents each day, while Japan has banned foreign workers and students from entering the country since late December.

In China, officials view travel restrictions as critical to their success in containing the virus. Since the outbreak began, China has reported more than 101,000 cases of Covid. Although questions have been raised about the accuracy of the numbers, they are far fewer than in the US, where 29.8 million people tested positive for the virus. China’s strategy reflects both its strengths and its weaknesses.

China was the only major economy that grew over the past year. It has been known that companies will find a way to keep their Chinese operations going, with or without expatriates, and it is being wagered that they will return when the pandemic subsides. At the same time, China’s restrictions highlight the inadequacies in introducing vaccines, which have been slow compared to those of the US, UK and other countries.

Foreign executives believe China is likely to be one of the last countries in the world that may not fully reopen until next year after the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. China’s restrictions will cause significant delays in building large factories or winning customer orders, according to corporate groups.

In the past few days, Chinese embassies in at least 50 countries have stated that foreigners wishing to enter China could avoid some visa papers by taking a China-made Covid-19 vaccine. The government introduced the rule as easing its visa application process. But it doesn’t help travelers from places like the United States where Chinese vaccines aren’t available.

“It’s kind of a catch-22,” said Jeff Jolly, who has been stuck in the US since July after leaving Shanghai, where he runs a language training center and academic advisory service.

In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “We believe this is a useful investigation to facilitate international travel once mass vaccination has been achieved.”

As more deadly and infectious virus variants emerged in other countries in recent months, China introduced new requirements.

At the end of last year, the approval of a spouse or child for the country was essentially stopped. Since January, travelers coming to Beijing from countries with severe outbreaks have been required to conduct weekly anal swabs in quarantine, with faecal material being tested for traces of the virus. The measure sparked outraged complaints from the US and Japan.

Last month, the government announced that foreign and Chinese travelers from more than two dozen countries would have to conduct an employer-monitored overseas quarantine for two weeks before they could even fly to China. After landing, they were expected to spend an additional two weeks in a government-managed quarantine facility.

Updated

March 21, 2021, 3:14 p.m. ET

The number of foreign directors in China has decreased. A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce of 191 companies in southern China found that 70 percent had fewer than five expatriate employees in China at the end of last year, compared with 33 percent the previous year. The proportion of companies without expatriates rose from 9 percent in the previous year to 28 percent.

Mr. Style, the owner of the electric vehicle parts maker, said the Chinese visa process is now benefiting large companies that contribute a large portion of the tax revenue, not start-ups like his company. He said he settled in the US – his wife is American – and has no plans to return to China anytime soon.

The Foreign Ministry said China’s re-entry policy “treats all foreign workers equally, and there is no so-called different treatment.”

China’s restrictions have been tightened by decisions about visas and entry requirements, which can seem arbitrary to those trying to return.

Glyn Wise, who had taught English literature at an international school in Shanghai, was able to get a work visa from the Chinese embassy in London in October. But the agency that helped prepare his application later told him that Chinese border officials would not recognize the visa.

“In many cases, they changed the rules about who they accepted,” said Wise. He said he was looking for job opportunities outside of China.

But many others are still hopeful and some have organized campaigns on social media to raise awareness of their plight.

Nearly 13,000 international students kept out of China signed an online petition asking Beijing to allow their return while others launched a Twitter campaign called #TakeUsBackToChina.

Amanuel Tafese, a registered Ethiopian student At a university in southwest China’s Chengdu city, he said he had tried taking his classes online since he was out of the country early last year. However, he had to rent a room to do this because there is no electricity or internet access in his family’s home, 280 miles from the capital Addis Ababa.

Mr Tafese says he cannot find work because he has no degree and is relying on his father’s low income to support himself.

“All of this made me feel depressed,” wrote Mr Tafese in an email.

China’s severe restrictions, including the recent ban on loved ones, have also emotionally strained some families who have been separated for months, in some cases more than a year.

Last February, Jessie Astbury Allen brought her two young daughters to England to await the outbreak in China in hopes that they would reunite with her husband in Shanghai by Easter.

It was a plan she would regret.

“I knew in my gut we were doing the wrong thing, but it was too late,” she said, crying, as she described how she felt landing at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Like many banned parents, Ms. Astbury Allen had to balance the demands of her daughters’ online courses with her job as the China director of a marketing and strategy firm helping overseas brands sell in China.

At the end of September, the government announced that people with an expired residence permit could return to China after applying for a visa. Mrs. Astbury Allen rushed to motion in October. But by the time she got to a visa center, the rules had already changed.

China announced on November 4 that it would temporarily suspend entry of foreign nationals from the UK, even if they had a visa or valid residence permit. It described the move as a “temporary response” as cases of Covid-19 increased in the UK.

The situation has overwhelmed Ms. Astbury Allen. What she worries most about is the trauma this breakup inflicts on her daughters.

Her 12-year-old Livia became depressed and hid under her covers. She refused to come out of her room for three days. When Mae, her usually cheerful 7-year-old, saw her mother cry last month, she got very upset and emotional, Ms. Astbury Allen said.

“I said, ‘Do you miss your father, honey?” said Mrs. Astbury Allen. “And she said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘It’s okay. We miss him too. ‘”

Elsie Chen, Coral Yang, and Claire Fu have contributed to the research.

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