• Hamsini Hariharan

Who's going back to China?

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on April 24, 2020 and can be accessed here


On March 28, the Chinese government stopped the entry of foreigners including those holding valid visas and residence permits. The aim ostensibly is to prevent a second wave of infections from the global pandemic of the COVID-19. As the number of imported cases now rank higher than the number of domestically transmitted cases, China is being cautious about protecting itself. What this means however, is that the vast majority of foreigners who left the country will be unable to return for the foreseeable future.

The move comes as imported infections outnumber the number of locally transmitted ones. The Chinese government has disclosed that 90% of the imported infections are from Chinese passport holders. Since North America and Europe has seen a rise in infections, an increasing number of Chinese diaspora are keen to return home. Meanwhile, Chinese cities are hesitantly springing back into life and the foreigners who have stayed back in China face the brunt of being singled out as infection risks. In several instances, restaurants and businesses have reportedly stopped admitting foreigners even if they have not left China during this period. However, this is not the case through the country as several foreigners admit that they have faced no active discrimination through this period.

Research has shown that the Chinese public generally has a positive attitude towards immigration and foreign workers. International migrants form less than a percent of China’s overall population. However, China has been looking to attract more talent through students and working professionals over the last few years. Particularly over the last two years, the Chinese government announced a slew of programs to relax immigration rules that are cumbersome and bureaucratic. In August, China amended the entry and exit norms for foreigners. In December, the Chinese government announced a plan for the Yangtze River Delta region (Shanghai and three neighboring provinces) which included streamlining processes related to work and residence for immigrants. In February 2020, the Ministry of Justice proposed amending the rules for permanent residence which have been very elusive even for foreigners who have stayed in the country for more decades.

However, domestic reactions to these reforms have been mixed. The February announcement saw the Chinese internet erupt with anger and xenophobia, mostly directed against black people and Muslims. Chen Chen Zhang at Queen’s University, Belfast, explains that this xenophobia finds a valve online, “Chinese nationalism is rooted in this ethno-racial understanding of nationhood and that has had a persistent influence through modern Chinese history. So, you can see a lot of comments to the draft regulation that refers to foreigners as a threat to ethnic purity of the nation.” She then goes on to explain that a lot of the anger is not directly aimed at the immigrants themselves, “I think, these feelings of unfairness and inequality within the country that are being redirected, or rechanneled towards a xenophobic agenda. You have the hukou system that imposes lots of barriers for internal migrants to access public services and rights with regard to housing, healthcare, education and so on.”

As COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the world, China is still recovering from its initial onslaught. Until the storm passes, borders will be stand taller and transnational movement limited. However, this is the reality not only facing China but the whole world at this point.