China Orders Temporary Stop to ‘Non-essential’ Passports

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The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, near Beijing. The Chinese government has temporarily stopped issuing "non-essential" and "non-emergency" passports. (Image: Ahazan/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

On July 30, Chinese authorities announced “a series of strict and tight policy measures” limiting the issuance of new passports.

According to the state-run People’s Daily, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) National Immigration Administration has temporarily stopped granting “entry and exit documents such as ordinary passports … for non-essential and non-emergency exit reasons.”

Immigration Administration spokesman Chen Jie, who is also head of the body’s policy and regulations department, advised applicants “to cancel or postpone their exit plans abroad if they do not have urgent and necessary reasons.” 

The move is billed as an epidemic prevention measure to “protect people’s health and lives.”

Dozens of provinces across China have in recent weeks reported new cases of COVID-19, which the authorities say are the result of the virus being imported from outside the PRC. Notable outbreaks include those in the cities of Guangdong, Nanjing, and Chengdu. 

There is considerable skepticism as to the true spread and lethality of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19) in China, with local residents and health workers telling overseas Chinese media that most cases go unreported. 

Rising number of asylum seekers from China

Beijing may also be concerned with emigration from mainland China, particularly by the wealthy, powerful, or politically dissident. 

According to the Immigration Administration, only those who can verify they need to leave China for study, work, or business have the right to apply for or renew a passport. 

The PRC has issued 335,000 passports in the first half of 2021 — just 2 percent of the amount issued in the first half of 2020. 

The annual number of Chinese citizens seeking refugee status abroad has increased seven-fold over the last 9 years, according to data British media outlets obtained from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

In 2012, 15,362 PRC citizens sought refugee status abroad, compared with 107,864 in 2020. More than 600,000 Chinese have applied for asylum in other countries in the eight-year period. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) keeps a tight lid on state or Party officials who travel abroad, and has prevented a number of known dissidents from exiting the country. 

Many wealthy Chinese have found it difficult to leave as well, with the Party anxious to keep their assets in China. 

Jennifer Zeng, a Chinese human rights activist living in the U.S., described the new regulations as “a big deal” and urged China watchers, investors, and policymakers to take note, as the CCP could be “closing its doors again,” she said in an Aug. 1 tweet.

Larry Ong, an analyst at political risk consultancy SinoInsider, said that Beijing’s move was indicative of a greater trend towards ban bi guan suo guo (半閉關鎖國), or “partial closing up” of the PRC as the Party and Chinese leader Xi Jinping weather a growing storm of fiscal shortages, social unrest, and international pressure

“The CCP’s actions are best understood from its unending quest to ensure regime survival and dominate at home and abroad,” Ong told Vision Times in a written statement.

SinoInsider earlier observed “partial closing up” efforts by the Party in early 2019 through the development of its rural supply cooperative system to survive “worst case” scenarios in escalating “great power competition” with the United States, he said.

According to the New York-based think tank, Xi is currently locked in intense factional struggle with rivals in the Party, whose influence could prevent the incumbent leader from securing a norm-breaking third term as CCP boss at the 20th Party Congress next year.

“By controlling the issue of passports, the CCP is striking a balance between survival and domination by prioritizing political safety at the expense of some economic activity.”

However, Ong said it was unlikely that the Party would fully close up the country due to the sheer impracticability of doing so. 

“China is very interconnected with the world, unlike the Soviet Union,” Ong said. “Measures to ‘partially close up’ will end once the regime feels secure enough.”

  • Leo Timm is a writer and Chinese-to-English translator with years of experience covering Chinese politics, society, and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @soil_and_grain.