For more than a thousand days, China has kept its borders largely closed to the outside world, in an effort to guard against the spread of covid. Today, China is taking a giant step out of its isolation, scrapping its quarantine requirement for inbound travelers.
In March 2020, to prevent a wave of “imported” infections, China locked down its borders to foreigners. Millions of international tourists who visit the Great Wall, Forbidden City and dozens of other sights every year were barred from entry. They weren’t the only ones shut out – so were visiting students, scholars, artists and members of delegations and exchange programs that have been a staple of travel to China for decades. Nearly all existing visas to China were suspended, upending countless lives on both sides of the border overnight.
In the nearly three years that followed, Chinese consulates approved only a limited number of business and family-visit visas; tourist visas remained off-limits. And the travelers who were permitted entry faced other obstacles. In tandem with the border restrictions, the Civil Aviation Administration of China strictly limited international flights, sending the cost of tickets soaring. People flying from the U.S. have had to pay $5,000, and sometimes more, for an economy-class ticket to China – several times the average pre-pandemic price. And once travelers arrived in China, they faced at least 14 days of quarantine in a hotel; some were subjected to far longer periods of isolation – up to two months in some cases.
Overall, from 2019 to 2021, travel in and out of China dropped by 80 percent. It’s been an unprecedented cutoff for a country as large and important as China, and it’s had a sweeping impact, from the Chinese diaspora to cultural delegations to global corporations.
As China neared the end of its quarantine era, Grid reached out to some of those people to help document what’s been lost in the intervening years.
A breakdown in US-China exchange
Even before the pandemic, “engagement” between the U.S. and China had suffered, as American politicians on both sides of the aisle pushed for a more confrontational approach to China. But for people who believed that face-to-face interaction and exchanges between citizens of the two superpowers remained critical -- perhaps even more so because of rising friction between Washington and Beijing – China’s pandemic restrictions struck a crushing blow.
Study abroad programs that send students to China have been hit hard. Madelyn Ross, president of the US-China Education Trust, formerly served as director of China initiatives at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In that role, she planned a SAIS student trip to Wuhan for March 2020 – a month when the city found itself in the throes of the first covid outbreak. The trip was scrapped, but that was just the beginning. Until this fall, when the Chinese government began reissuing student visas, hardly any foreign students were able to attend study abroad and higher education programs in China. It’s not clear exactly how many students were affected, but as of 2018, when the last data was posted, nearly 500,000 foreign students were studying in China.
Ross and her colleagues worked hard to get around the barriers, planning Zoom classes and online conferences. But they couldn’t replicate the feeling of in-person meetings, she said – not least because the time difference offered only narrow windows of a couple of hours each day that were conducive to classes, meetings and events linking participants in both countries.
“It had a really devastating impact on students,” Ross told Grid.
At a time when U.S.-China tensions had already turned some Americans away from studying Chinese, the restrictions further dampened student appetite. In a 2021 op-ed in The Diplomat, three foreign students whose programs in China were affected wrote that “faced with the reality of virtual study abroad and China’s opaque visa process, many of our peers have walked away from their initial curiosity about China.” Academics have also felt the blow, particularly those who haven’t been able to travel to their research field sites in China.
Dozens of other sectors have felt the impact. For decades, U.S. environmental advocates have traveled to China to provide expertise and learn from Chinese partners. That exchange has broken down, leaving American environmentalists less aware of the on-the-ground reality for Chinese emissions and the latest nuances of climate policy in China. On the flip side, fewer Chinese environmentalists have been able to travel to critical international climate and biodiversity meetings.
Before the pandemic, Jennifer Turner, the director of the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, traveled regularly to China for meetings and events with Chinese environmental NGOs. The restrictions have “definitely had a bit of a chilling effect on our work,” she told Grid, leading the organization to pivot toward working more on environmental issues involving China’s overseas infrastructure projects. “I don’t have my hand on the pulse as well as I used to.”
The travel barriers haven’t just been frustrating for individuals like Turner and their organizations. Taken together, they have amounted to a significant setback in collaboration between the U.S. and China – the world’s largest carbon emitters – on the planet’s biggest problem.
The travel restrictions have also exacted a huge cost for Chinese companies and global firms that work in China. In a June 2022 survey, 61 percent of the American Chamber of Commerce’s China members – American companies with operations in China -- said that essential staff, including senior executives, were unable to travel to China. A survey from the same month by the U.S.-China Business Council found that travel restrictions were the third largest issue for its members, after covid lockdowns and U.S.-China relations writ large.
“For most of the past few years, covid-related travel restrictions made it impractical for U.S.-based executives to visit their operations in China,” said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council. “This not only created operational difficulties for companies but also narrowed the people-to-people exchanges that are so important for the business community.”
Many companies told the council that they canceled conferences and delayed major business decisions because their executives couldn’t visit China in person. The American Chamber of Commerce also reported that travel restrictions had been a major challenge for companies trying to recruit foreigners to work in China; fewer people were willing to stomach the move given the travel headaches.
There may be long-term impacts for companies, even after the relaxation of the rules. Combined with local lockdowns, the restrictions have led many businesses to rethink their future in China. By the end of 2021, more than one-third of AmCham’s China members said they were either unsure of their future level of investments in China or planned to decrease them if travel restrictions didn’t change.
Then there is the personal loss. And here the group that has felt the impact most keenly are the millions of families that have been separated by the travel restrictions.
A Chinese Ph.D. student at Penn State University who asked to remain anonymous told Grid about her experience navigating the restrictions. She went to college in the U.S. and had grown accustomed to traveling home twice a year to see her family in Beijing. The pandemic put an end to that. She couldn’t return home until the summer of 2021.
“At that time, just going home was just terrible,” she said. “It took me like a month from door to door.” She had to take a circuitous route and ended up in quarantine for 28 days in Xiamen before being able to enter Beijing. She was lucky, she said, because in the lottery-like system of quarantine hotels, she “won” with an ocean-side room. Nonetheless, the travel took a toll. Eventually, she decided that the flights were too costly and the trips too complicated to undertake.
For many others, the situation has proved heartbreaking. “I know a lot of my friends who have lost their grandparents, for various reasons,” the Ph.D. student said, “and they couldn’t go home because of the covid restrictions.”
Reopening won’t happen all at once
In the months leading up to the lifting of the quarantine requirements, China has also started to make it slightly easier to get a visa. Together, these changes have fueled optimism among those who were shut out of China for nearly three years.
Turner says she is restarting conversations with partners in China to plan in-person projects again. Allen, of the U.S.-China Business Council, says that companies are welcoming the change as a key step toward resuming normal business travel. And the Penn State Ph.D. student is hoping to introduce her new fiancé to her Beijing family this summer.
But many barriers remain in place. The government still isn’t allowing tourists in. In its recent announcement, the government only promised to “optimize” visa processing for foreign citizens looking to visit relatives, and travel for business and study without providing any further detail.
And of course, there is the inconvenient fact that the pandemic is still there. Having reversed its “zero-covid” policy, China is once again the world’s covid hotspot. That alone may slow any rush to return to China, at least in the short term.
As Ross said, “The outlook right now for the covid situation is so bad that nobody is hopping on a plane.”
Cleo Li-Schwartz contributed reporting. Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.