China Responds to U.S. Covid Testing Rule With a Collective Shrug

Some Chinese were disappointed by the Biden administration’s new testing requirement for travelers coming from their country. Others radiated contempt, calling it the latest Western effort to contain China’s rise. But many were simply indifferent.

For many Chinese, the U.S. rule that they must present negative Covid tests to visit is a tangential development. China is grappling with severe outbreaks that have sickened countless people and overwhelmed hospitals and funeral parlors. Many are focused on trying to hold on to their jobs and homes as the economy sputters.

And to many of those who have been considering travel, an extra Covid test is not a major inconvenience. Such testing had until recently been — for many tens of millions of citizens — a near-daily routine mandated by the authorities. And Chinese tourists know that they’re welcome in a lot of places across Asia and beyond.

“It’s just a Covid test before traveling,” said Li Kuan, 33, a software engineer at a technology start-up in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. “We’ve been doing a bunch of tests like this for the past three years.”

The rule from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced on Wednesday, will require negative tests from anyone, regardless of nationality or vaccination status, who wants to board a U.S.-bound flight in China. It will apply to travelers in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as to anyone coming from China who transits in the United States or enters it through a third country.

The rule will take effect on Jan. 5, three days before China plans to drop the strict quarantine requirements that have been in place for inbound travelers for nearly three years.

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

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

A Covid patient being moved through a packed hallway at a hospital in Tianjin, China, on Wednesday.Credit…Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Wednesday, the C.D.C. said that it was requiring a negative Covid test for travelers from China 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 now requires negative Covid test results and random screening at airports for passengers arriving from China, including Hong Kong, as well as from Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

Understand the Situation in China

The Communist Party cast aside restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.

  • Medicine Shortages: As Covid rips through parts of China, millions are struggling to find treatment — from the most basic cold remedies to take at home to more powerful antivirals for patients in hospitals.
  • Traumatized and Deflated: Gripped with grief and anxiety, many in China want a national reckoning over the hard-line Covid policy. Holding the government accountable may be a quixotic quest.
  • A Cloudy Picture: Despite Beijing’s assurances that the situation is under control, data on infections has become more opaque amid loosened pandemic constraints.
  • In Beijing: As Covid sweeps across the Chinese capital, Beijing looks like a city in the throes of a lockdown — this time, self-imposed by residents.

On Thursday in China, the Communist Party’s main propaganda outlets, usually quick to criticize countries that impose restrictions on Chinese travelers, appeared to downplay the U.S. news. The C.D.C. rule itself was barely mentioned on many of the party’s main platforms.

Some sites instead highlighted the positive reception China’s easing has been getting in other countries. “China’s new measures ‘enhance 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 that China’s official media could be wary of reporting too much on the U.S. restriction out of fear that doing so would draw attention to China’s domestic outbreaks and fuel public anger.

“If you talk about this too much, you’re bound to make mistakes,” he said.

For Beijing, it could be difficult to make the argument that the United States should not impose a testing requirement, when China itself still plans to maintain one, even after it eases the rules. The government will require incoming travelers to show a negative polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., test within 48 hours before departure.

At a routine news briefing in Beijing on Thursday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, did not directly address the Biden administration’s move. He repeated talking points Beijing has used in the past week as some countries started imposing limits on Chinese travelers, saying that those pandemic measures should be “scientific and appropriate.”

But this time, he made a pointed reference to the question of discrimination, saying that such measures should also “treat citizens of all countries equally.”

Some Chinese citizens shrugged off the U.S. testing requirement, calling it a minor inconvenience for a population that has grown accustomed to near-constant P.C.R. testing throughout the pandemic.

China’s Covid-era testing requirements for international travelers have been “way more complicated” than what the United States is now requiring of travelers from the country, said Wang Xiaofei, 29, who works for a technology 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 she had the opportunity. “Just cooperate.”

Others were less accommodating.

Iris Su, 22, a university student in New York City, said that her parents, who live in the eastern city of Qingdao, had been thinking of visiting her after the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday in late January. “Now they aren’t so sure,” she said. “They are a bit unhappy with the U.S. restrictions.”

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

Several epidemiologists said on Thursday that the new U.S. policy would be ineffective, based on evidence from other places — including Hong Kong, a Chinese territory, where a raft of testing requirements for incoming travelers earlier this year failed to prevent a sharp rise in the number of imported cases.

Travelers in an airport terminal in Beijing on Thursday. As China loosens its inbound-traveler rules, several countries are tightening them.Credit…Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Karen Grépin, a global health policy expert at the University of Hong Kong, said that while the C.D.C.’s new rule may prevent superspreader conditions on airplanes, it would not stop new variants — just as earlier bans on international travel did very little to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.

“What we should really be doing now as a global community is thinking about how to support the Chinese people through this transition, not shutting them off,” she said.

It was unclear on Thursday how or whether the new C.D.C. rule would affect China’s delicate relationship with the United States. When President Biden and Xi Jinping, China’s powerful leader, met in Indonesia last month, they appeared eager for a soft reset of a relationship that had been careening toward confrontation. Yet the relationship remains stuck at its lowest point in years amid disagreements over the future of Taiwan, technology restrictions and China’s mass detentions of its citizens, among other issues.

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

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

Mr. Huang said that he sympathized with international criticism of China’s perceived reluctance to share coronavirus data with other countries. But he also worries that the C.D.C. requirement may be fodder for Chinese nationalists who argue that the United States is trying to contain China’s rise.

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

“The Covid outbreak this time tells China that it must recognize a basic fact,” Shen Yi, a professor of international politics at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote in a column.

“That is that China’s words, deeds and various policies will face electron microscope-level scrutiny by American and Western public opinion and anti-China politicians,” he wrote. “If there is a slight flaw, it will be infinitely magnified; if a flaw can’t be found, they’d create it artificially.”

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