February 8, 2023

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China Covid: US testing rule meets collective shrug

Some Chinese expressed disappointment with the Biden government’s new testing requirement for travelers from their country. Others exuded contempt, calling it the latest Western effort to stem China’s rise. But many were simply indifferent.

For many Chinese, the US rule that they must present negative Covid tests when visiting is a fringe issue. China has been grappling with severe outbreaks that have sickened countless people and overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes. Many are focused on keeping their jobs and homes while the economy falters.

And for many of those who have considered travel, an additional Covid test is not a major inconvenience. Such tests were until recently – for many tens of millions of citizens – an almost daily routine ordered by the authorities. And Chinese tourists know they are welcome in many places across Asia and beyond.

“It’s just a pre-travel Covid test,” said Li Kuan, 33, a software engineer at a tech startup in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. “We’ve run a number of such tests over the past three years.”

The rule announced on Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires anyone wishing to board a flight bound for the US in China, regardless of nationality or vaccination status, to be tested negatively. It applies to travelers in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as anyone coming from China traveling to the United States or entering through a third country.

The rule comes into effect on Jan. 5, three days before China plans to lift strict quarantine requirements for inbound travelers that have been in place for nearly three years.

People around the world are excited about the potential economic and tourism boon that would come with a surge in Chinese tourists. But some also worry about how cases in the country have skyrocketed since early December, when China abruptly lifted its “zero Covid” policy following mass protests over lockdowns that threatened the ruling Communist Party.

Officials in the United States fear the coronavirus will spread rapidly in China, allowing new variants to develop and spread around the world.

On Wednesday, the CDC said it is requiring travelers from China to test negative for Covid to slow the spread of the virus in the United States. As new variants of the virus emerge around the world, China’s “reduced” testing and case reporting and “minimal” sharing of epidemiological data could delay their identification, the agency said.

Italy and Japan recently imposed similar travel restrictions, and India is now requiring negative Covid test results and random screening at airports for passengers arriving from China, including Hong Kong, as well as Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

The Communist Party scrapped the restrictive “zero Covid” policy that sparked mass protests that posed a rare challenge to the communist leadership.

On Thursday in China, the main Communist Party propaganda outlets, which are usually quick to criticize countries that impose restrictions on Chinese travelers, appeared to downplay the US news. The CDC rule itself received little mention on many of the party’s main platforms.

Some websites instead highlighted the positive reception China’s easing has received in other countries. “China’s New Measures ‘Boost Global Economic Hope,'” read the headline of an article in the Global Times, the Communist Party newspaper.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said China’s official media may be wary of reporting too much about the US confinement for fear it will draw attention to China’s domestic outbreaks and the public would stir up anger.

“Whoever talks too much about it inevitably makes mistakes,” he said.

It might be difficult for Beijing to argue that the United States shouldn’t impose testing requirements when China itself still plans to maintain one even after relaxing rules. The government requires arriving travelers to present a negative polymerase chain reaction or PCR test within 48 hours of departure.

At a routine news conference Thursday in Beijing, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the State Department, did not directly address the Biden administration’s move. He echoed the talking points Beijing used last week when some countries began imposing restrictions on Chinese travelers, saying these pandemic measures should be “scientific and proportionate.”

This time, however, he specifically referred to the issue of discrimination, saying that such measures should also “treat citizens of all countries equally”.

Some Chinese citizens dismissed the US testing requirements, calling it a minor inconvenience for a population accustomed to near-constant PCR testing during the pandemic.

China’s Covid-era testing requirements for international travelers were “much more complicated” than what the United States now requires of travelers from the country, said Wang Xiaofei, 29, who works for a tech company in the southern megacity of Shenzhen.

“It is what it is,” she said of the testing policy, adding that she would still travel to the United States if given the opportunity. “Just cooperate.”

Others were less accommodating.

Iris Su, 22, a university student in New York City, said her parents, who live in the eastern city of Qingdao, thought of visiting her after the week-long Lunar New Year vacation in late January. “Now they’re not so sure,” she said. “They are a bit unhappy with the US restrictions.”

Ms Su said she sees the CDC rule as a political move, not a scientific one. “Ultimately, this is all a confrontation between great powers,” she added.

Several epidemiologists said Thursday the new US policy would be ineffective based on evidence from other places — including Hong Kong, a Chinese territory where a series of testing requirements for incoming travelers were imposed earlier this year could not prevent a sharp increase in the number of imported cases.

Karen Grépin, a global health policy expert at the University of Hong Kong, said that while the CDC’s new rule could prevent superspreader conditions on planes, it would not stop new variants – just as previous bans on international travel have done very little to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.

“What we really should be doing now as a global community is thinking about how we can support the Chinese people in this transition, not shut them out,” she said.

As of Thursday, it was unclear how or if the new CDC rule would affect China’s thorny relationship with the United States. When President Biden and Xi Jinping, China’s powerful leader, met in Indonesia last month, they seemed eager for a gentle revisit of a relationship that was heading toward confrontation. But the relationship remains at its lowest point in years amid disagreements over Taiwan’s future, technological restrictions and China’s mass arrests of its citizens, among other issues.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, described the CDC rule as “epidemiologically unconvincing and diplomatically unjustified.”

“General reopening should be encouraged,” he said, referring to China’s plan to gradually dismantle its Covid testing infrastructure and travel restrictions. “Now you give the Chinese the impression that you are punishing them.”

Mr Huang said he sympathized with international criticism of China’s perceived reluctance to share coronavirus data with other countries. But he also fears the CDC requirement could be fodder for Chinese nationalists who argue the United States is trying to stem China’s rise.

That was the tone of some pages of the Global Times on Thursday.

“This time, the Covid outbreak is showing China that it must recognize a fundamental fact,” wrote Shen Yi, a professor of international politics at Fudan University in Shanghai, in a column.

“It means that China’s words, deeds and various policies will come under electron-microscopic scrutiny by American and Western public opinion and anti-Chinese politicians,” he wrote. “If there is a small error, it will be magnified infinitely; If an error cannot be found, they would artificially create it.”