Waiver to wave?

China’s pilot project to expand its list of unilateral visa-free countries may not seem like a big step, but it is a first step that signals China’s further opening up.

Here’s a recent news clipping that may not have been breaking news, but still got a lot of attention: On November 24, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that China had expanded its list of unilateral visa-free countries. From December 1, the trial policy will be in effect for one year, until November 30, 2024, and allow holders of ordinary passports from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia to enter China without a visa and stay in the country for up to 15 days.

This is China’s latest effort to improve its visa policies. Earlier last month, the country extended its visa-free transit policy to 54 countries, including Norway.

The one-sided visa waiver is a breakthrough in the history of China’s foreign relations. For a long time, China had followed the principle of reciprocity in its visa-free policy. That is, China sets its visa policy depending on its counterparts in other countries, and when China grants a visa-free policy to a country’s citizens, it requires that country to grant the same preferential treatment to Chinese citizens.

At present, China and 14 countries, the vast majority of which are developing countries, reciprocally exempt ordinary passports from visa requirements. Time will tell if the new waiver results in a new wave of inbound visitors to China.

When the country resumed its pre-pandemic policy of border entry and exit control policies at the beginning of this year, a problem emerged that could not be ignored: the significant drop in the number of people entering and leaving China.

According to data released by China’s National Immigration Administration on July 19, 8.4 million cross-border trips were made by foreign passport holders in the first six months, compared with 97.67 million for the whole of 2019; at the same time, outbound tourists from China totaled 40.3 million, compared with 155 million for the whole of 2019.

It is difficult to analyze all the reasons for this phenomenon in a few simple sentences but to summarize: In the context of the continuing global economic downturn, almost every family can feel the economic pressure and so reducing non-essential travel has become an inevitable choice. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic has also changed people’s mindsets and lifestyles to a great extent. As online meetings have become the new normal, international business travel will inevitably decrease.

Tourists are seen at the entry inspection hall of Luohu Port in Shenzhen, south China’s Guangdong Province, on Mar. 15, 2023. (Photo/Xinhua)

Another trend that deserves attention here is that in recent years, with the persistent tension in Sino-American relations, voices demonizing China have continued to emerge in the Western world. It is exceedingly difficult for ordinary people not to have a negative impression of China, believing it to be a closed and backward country.

This hypothesis, in turn, directly impacts multinational companies’ decisions about international investment, including business travel. Meanwhile, the Chinese, for their part, are hesitant about whether their visits will be as welcome as they were in pre-pandemic times, given the rise of anti-China sentiment in Western society.

As one ancient Chinese proverb goes, “Amity between the people holds the key to sound state-to-state relations.”

No matter how grand the diplomatic rhetoric, it will be difficult to solve real problems if people from different countries find it difficult to visit each other. China’s pilot project to expand its list of unilateral visa-free countries may not seem like a big step, but it is a first step that signals China’s further opening up. More and more countries may be added to the list.

China’s visa goodwill is also being reciprocated by other countries. Right after China announced it had added Malaysia to the unilateral visa-free list, the Malaysian Government immediately announced that Chinese citizens “will be able to enjoy a 30-day visa-free policy for Malaysia starting in December.”

German Ambassador to China Patricia Flor told China Global Television Network: “This decision will facilitate travel to China for many German citizens to an unprecedented extent. We hope that the Chinese Government will implement the measures announced for all member states of the European Union.” Visa-free travel to Germany for Chinese citizens would only be possible if all members of the European Schengen Agreement agreed, she added.

France, in the meantime, has already promised to issue longer-term visas to Chinese graduate students.

Two years ago, Chinese netizens came to an unofficial, yet fiercely debated, conclusion: 1.26 billion people in China have never left their country, and more than 1 billion have never been on a plane.

In this market with huge potential, many people’s first overseas trip may partly depend on which country offers the most favorable visa policy.