Beijing's Covid Paranoia Is Alienating China's Diaspora
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For decades, China tried to foster strong ties with its own diaspora to benefit from for the talent and money spread around the world. The Thousand Talents recruitment programs, for example, enticed top-notch scientists to bring their research home. It was a breeze to travel to the mainland even for some who no longer held a Chinese passport. If they lived in Hong Kong or Macau, they didn’t need a visa and could enter the country with a home return permit.
The pandemic has changed everything. Pursuing a Covid-zero strategy, Beijing views overseas Chinese with suspicion, paranoid that they would re-import the infectious disease. It would certainly not be politically propitious for an outbreak to occur just before the 20th National Party Congress late next year. That would be a bad omen for President Xi Jinping, who is expected to secure an unprecedented third term then.
Travel to China has become impossible, even though many are willing to brave three weeks of quarantine to see their family and business associates. For the more than half a million Chinese living in New York, the only option is state-owned China Eastern Airlines Corp., which runs direct flights to Shanghai Mondays and Wednesdays. Ahead of early February’s lunar New Year, economy seats are fully booked, while a one-way business class ticket will set you back over $13,000.
“Don’t travel unless it’s urgent and necessary,” Chinese embassies tell all would-be applicants. But even essential travel can be impossible. There are five Chinese consulates in the U.S. to process passenger health permits for only eight direct flights to China. China Eastern’s MU588 is the only one on the New York branch’s list.
To get onto a flight, a Chinese traveler must obtain a green health code from the consulate closest to the origin of the direct flight. Delta Air Lines Inc., for instance, offers a cheaper route from Detroit to Shanghai, but a traveler from New York will need to get the consulate in Chicago to affix the health code. This stands in sharp contrast to the U.S.’s open-door policy. A flight from Hong Kong to New York is so easy. Our traveler just needs to do a Covid test 72 hours before, and there are no onerous quarantines when she lands.
Focused on domestic politics and affairs, Xi himself hasn’t left China in almost two years, nor have all the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top leadership. The inward-looking government probably doesn’t thinks it’s a problem for overseas Chinese to wait as well. At least until next year’s Congress is Covid-free and over.
That’s a mistake. The Chinese diaspora has served both the People’s Republic and the world by explaining one to the other as they traveled between their homeland and their countries of residence. Now, that access is gone. For example, who will make sense of Xi’s “common prosperity” and its effect on China’s middle class? From afar, it can be seen as a sincere blueprint to narrow a widening wealth gap. But it might also be a weapon against Xi’s political foes and their billionaire friends. If the country is shut off even to overseas Chinese who sympathize with reform, how is the world going to tell what’s going on?
The walling off of China will certainly not help relations with the U.S. Among ordinary Americans, feelings toward China have gone cold.
China is not North Korea. Beijing still seems to want foreigners’ money and vows to open its financial markets. So, why doesn’t it open its arms to its messengers as well? Cut off, overseas Chinese are now equally in the dark. We don’t really know what China is up to, or if we are indeed still what Beijing used to warmly call us: “Siblings.” Even for family, China’s door is shut.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shuli Ren is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian markets. She previously wrote on markets for Barron's, following a career as an investment banker, and is a CFA charterholder.
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