Recently, the US ambassador to China Gary Locke announced that the US is considering, under condition of reciprocity, to extend the validity of US visas for Chinese citizens.
Only the week before, the number of American visa applications in China reached 1 million. As more and more people go abroad nowadays, restrictions on Chinese passports seem to be more and more inconvenient, making travel quite a hard process. Once a State announces the visa-free policy, first it needs to ensure this will not make problems for itself, secondly, it needs to act on the basis of reciprocity. As for these two points, the position of China is not advantageous.
U.S. Visa Waiver Program favors developed countries with high human development index
Visa policy might be compared to a door that one country opens for another, bearing in mind disparities in economic power between the two countries, the estimated flow of immigrants, as well as possible income from tourism after opening the border. Establishing a visa-free policy might be a threat to the public security, increase the level of illegal immigration and other problems – like in the case of the United States. After terrorist attacks and a flow of illegitimate immigrants, from 150 eligible countries, in the end of 2010, only 36 were included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The program allows the citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism purposes for up to 90 days without needing to apply for a visa. The participants are usually developed countries with a high human development index. Beside 30 European countries, only the citizens of 6 other states can enter the U.S.A. without a visa: Brunei, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Ecuador’s visa-free policy started in June 20th 2008, attracting the flow of illegal immigrants – within 6 months 11.000 Chinese citizens entered the country, but only 4.000 have left.
Some countries could have regretted opening their borders to China. In June 20th, 2008, the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, issued a decree announcing the abolition of entry visas for all countries, including China. Only that single day the flow of Chinese citizens entering Ecuador exceeded twice the average monthly number. Within the next 6 months 11.000 Chinese citizens entered the country, but only 4.000 have left. Ecuadorian authorities suspected that the final goal for someof the immigrants was Canada or the U.S.A. In August, the police raided residencies in Guayaquil, finding a group of hidden Chinese people. Soon after, an aircraft with 14 Chinese citizens flying to Mexico was intercepted. In November, the Ecuadorian Coastal Guard arrested on territorial waters a vessel heading to Central America with 47 Chinese people on board. Finally, in December 1st, Ecuador suspended their visa-free policy towards the holders of ordinary Chinese passports.
Visa-free policy should be enforced on the basis of reciprocity – as in the European Union’s Schengen Agreement
In order to lessen the risk related to visa-free policy, many countries decided to enforce it on the basis of reciprocity. Namely, the citizens of country A meet the same requirements while applying for a visa to country B, as B citizens applying for visa to A – just as in the EU Schengen Agreement, signed in June 14th 1985 by France, Holland, Luxembourg and West Germany. By the end of 2011, already 26 countries have joined the Agreement. The main objective of the treaty is to remove border controls in order to enhance the movement of people. Right now, holders of one of the EU member’s entry visa can freely travel to other Schengen countries.
In 2010 China rejected South Korea’s Visa Waiver Program – up to now China establishes visa-free policy for only 4 countries
China has rather strict regulations about entering the country. In 2003 China signed unilateral agreements about visa-free entry with 3 countries: Japan, Brunei and Singapore. Till now, including the previous treaty with San Marino, China has opened up for only 4 countries. In 2009, the South Korean Prime Minister Chung attempted to include China in the Visa Waiver Program. The discussion made progress during Shanghai Expo, when South Korea encouraged China to enforce a visa-free policy. However, the Middle Kingdom was not eager to accept it, claiming that “the objective conditions still need to ripen”, and finally rejected the concept. Clearly, China’s visa regulations are too strict, aiming to limit the visa-free traffic for ordinary passports holders.
Even visa-free entry does not mean you are free to travel
Despite various diplomatic constraints, there are still some countries offering visa-free entry for ordinary Chinese passport holders. In China however, implementing the visa-free policy is not equivalent to freedom to travel. In 2002 China started the process of simplifying passport application procedures. Right now, one of the conditions to get a passport is going through political investigation – the regulations seem to be more strict towards the emigrants after the communist liberation. During the 30 years between 1949 and 1978 there were only 210 000 passports issued, which is less than the total number of documents given out in the UK by 1926 (239,430 copies). Before 2002, applying procedures were really troublesome: one had to submit proof of residence, an outbound application form as well as an opinion from applicant’s work unit together with a proof of reasons to leave the country.
In 2002, Shanghai was the first Chinese city to launch a trial “passport on demand” program. China was gradually divided into application areas, where citizens could get a passport by just showing their identity cards and household registration documents. However, political investigation was still required.
Even if other countries offered a visa-free policy to China, that did not necessarily mean the same for them. Although the PRC has signed agreements with 74 countries, visa-free entry for ordinary passport holders was possible only in the case of San Marino. There are 3 kinds of Chinese passports: diplomatic, service (a.k.a. official) and ordinary, the latter divided into private and public. There are only 3 countries in the world that recognize public passports: China, Vietnam and South Korea. After joining the WTO China also ceased issuing ordinary public passports.
On 30th September 2011, China signed mutual agreements about non-visa traffic with 74 countries. These regulations, however, are valid only for diplomatic, official, tourist groups, and ordinary public passport holders, hence San Marino remains the only one real participant in the visa free policy for all kinds of passports. Unfortunately, this European country allows only small aircraft to land and take off from its airport, therefore tourists often need to fly to Italy in order to enter San Marino – that does not make much use for the ordinary passport holders. In theory, there are 43 countries that granted China visa-free policy, yet only 15 of them receive the same treatment. Visa free or visa on arrival means that one does not need to follow application procedures while leaving the country, but can fulfill the relevant formalities once he or she reaches the destination. But still, there are specific preconditions required in order to exit the country. In China, the immigration/emigration department, responsible for the strict regulations on borders, is under administration of the Ministry of Public Security. If a destination country is not on the list of the Migration Department, even if it offers visas on arrival for Chinese citizens, they would not be allowed to depart anyway.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) data provided by the U.S. Delta Air Lines, 43 countries have implemented a visa-free or visa on arrival policy towards China. But the ordinary passport holders from only 15 countries or regions can go through the border without a visa clearance. These are: South Korea (Cheju Island), Indonesia, Maldives, Saipan, Cambodia (electronic visa), Georgia (Europe) , Mauritius (Africa), Seychelles, Oceania, Fiji, Pago, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia and Tuvalu. Apart from them, only passport holders with a third country visa can obtain a visa on arrival or visa-free entry.
Despite the fast economic development, due to the strict border control, it is still difficult to travel freely with a Chinese passport. In 2010 the Henley Visa Restriction Index ranked China at the 88th place, just before Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan. No wonder some people call a Chinese document “the worst passport in the world”.
Some figures used in this text refers to the blogs 《和乐飞游》and《鹌鹑的窝》, to whom the author would like to express his gratefulness.
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