A public outcry at perceived efforts from China to stop people from leaving the country has erupted, reflecting growing unhappiness over the government’s punishing lockdowns and strict measures to fight Covid.
The National Immigration Administration said Thursday it will strictly limit unnecessary outbound travel for Chinese citizens and tighten the approval of entry and exit documents to prevent the virus being brought into the country. China is grappling to contain its worst outbreak since the early days of the pandemic, with Shanghai enduring a roughly six-week lockdown and Beijing residents fearful they may be next.
While the statement was in line with previous directives, the reiteration potentially signals more enforcement and has added to swelling frustration about the economic and social cost of China’s Covid Zero policy. In addition to the domestic lockdowns that underpin the strategy, the country has essentially sealed itself off from the world for the past two years, leaving it isolated as global peers shift to living with the virus.
“It’s a doubling down of existing policies because the government doesn’t want people to leave and come back one or two months later and bring back Covid,” said Sofia Fang, a Shanghai-based finance professional. “It’s like spreading salt on the wound. Why are they stopping us from leaving?”
Users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, as well as other social media platforms, circulated posts alleging some people were having their green cards — a permanent residence card for foreigners — cut up and that authorities were suspending the issuance of passports.
The immigration administration said on its official WeChat on Friday that those reports weren’t true, and reiterated that people should minimize unnecessary cross-border activities at the moment.
China reported 128 million entries and exits in 2021, less than 20% of 2019’s tally, according to data released by the immigration administration. The country issued only 335,000 passports in the first half of 2021, 2% of same period in 2019, according to the figures.
The extended lockdown of Shanghai, the country’s financial hub and home to the Chinese headquarters of many multinational companies and foreign elites, is already sparking a swath of departures. And uncertainty about when normal life can resume signals more to come.
Fang, who has been in lockdown for 43 days, said she still plans to leave Shanghai for London, where she will study for her MBA. “You get this feeling the government wants society to be immobile for a while. It wants everything to be calm.”
Some people in other parts of the country are also looking to flee as they face constant risk of severe curbs, including being penned into their homes and taken away to centralized quarantine facilities, being implemented with little warning.
“All my friends in China who have the means are considering leaving now. I’m personally even concerned over stepping on China’s territory now,” said Jason, a student at Harvard University, who asked to be identified only by his first name due to to concerns about retaliation.
“For the Chinese elites, what’s the point of working hard in a place where basic human and property rights can be taken away so arbitrarily?”— Bloomberg