China has stopped issuing and renewing passports for non-urgent purposes to try to minimise travel amid the rapid spread of coronavirus variants.
After many complaints from passport applicants, Chen Jie, spokesman for the National Immigration Administration under the Ministry of Public Security, confirmed on Friday that the country had been pushing back passport applications this year, according to mainland media reports.
Without giving a time frame for when the passport policy would be relaxed, Chen said it was a necessary response to the State Council's coordinated pandemic control mechanism to minimise the risk of outbreaks spread via entry and exit points, particularly when considering the difficulty of preventing the emergence of Covid-19 variants.
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However, exceptions were granted to those who needed to work and study abroad or travel for business, Chen said.
He said this measure to deter non-urgent travel played an important role in containing the pandemic.
"If (travel) isn't for urgent purposes, we urge the applicants to cancel or delay their plans to leave China. We also ask our officers to be flexible and grant applications for those who need to travel abroad to study, for work and for business. After confirming their case, we process applications for their travel documents in a timely manner," Chen said.
He added that faster service would be offered to those who worked on international coronavirus control efforts and company employees seeking to recover productivity hit by the pandemic.
In the first six months of the year, more than 67 million passengers and 7.5 million vehicles entered and left border control points across the country. Authorities processed more than 1.22 million travel documents for Chinese nationals and more than 3 million travel permits for Hong Kong and Macau, Chen said.
A total of 335,000 passports had been issued across the country for those who study and work overseas and travel for business - a 2 per cent increase compared to the same time in 2019. China issued 380,000 visas to foreigners in China and uncovered 85,000 immigrants found to be in the country illegally, according to Chen.
A 30-year-old Beijing resident who did not want to be identified said she needed her expired passport renewed to sit a chartered financial analyst examination but her request was rejected, with immigration officials saying it was not for a "special reason".
"They asked me to write a report stating my circumstances along with the examination permit but I can't even apply for the exam without a valid passport. After rounds of this bureaucratic conundrum, they told me to send them the CFA examination guidelines, which I did two days ago and I still haven't heard back from them," the applicant said.
China's great wall against coronavirus transmission from overseas has been in place since the early days of the pandemic, but there are mounting calls for China to open its borders.
China has strict rules for entry, including allowing only business travellers, and requiring multiple negative Covid-19 tests and mandatory quarantine of between 14 and 21 days.
The aim is to keep imported cases at bay while authorities press on with a vaccination drive at home to reach herd immunity, the point where enough people are inoculated that transmission is limited.
Martin Mueller, chairman of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce in China, warned that the entry bans on foreigners might hurt China's reputation.
"The response from the authorities to this crisis is absolutely impressive," said Mueller, who is based in Guangdong where the local government managed to control the latest wave of Covid-19 in May.
"Wouldn't it be possible to roll out a similar, very safe arrangement for foreigners who wish to enter China, people who would be willing to pay the cost and comply with the safety measures, But so far, many of them simply don't have the chance to come to China."
Mueller said that as chairman of the chamber he had received inquiries from Swiss businesspeople, engineers and specialists from big and small firms to obtain a visa to come back to China. He had signed letters to the local government to try to help his compatriots, but so far without success.
"It also affects the reputation of China in the world," he said.
Nicholas Thomas, a health security expert and associate professor at City University of Hong Kong, said the migration controls were in line "with a general pattern of countries that were successful with earlier containment seeking to avoid new outbreaks of the Delta variant trying to limit contact vectors between the home population and other infected societies".
"By limiting outbound travel, Chinese immigration authorities are seeking to minimise opportunities for Chinese people ... to be infected with Delta overseas and also limit the possibility that these persons could cause a community spread upon their return," Thomas said.
Given that the Delta variant is fast becoming the dominant strain globally, the controls mentioned by Chen could be seen as a way of minimising opportunistic infections in the population, he added.
The Delta strain of the pathogen is quicker to make people sick as its viral loads grow more rapidly inside the body and caused a person to shed as much as 1,260 times more virus than the original strain last year, according to Chinese research published on Virological.org earlier this month.
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou
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