Underneath China’s Closed-Door Policy 2.0 – Fear for the Inside or the Outside?

Earlier this year, rumors of China’s suspension of applications for private passports were debunked despite a conspicuous decrease in newly-issued passports during the first half of 2021. Ironically, China’s National Immigration Administration put an official halt on non-urgent passport renewals or applications in the name of blocking the surging Delta coronavirus variants from entering the country, only less than three months away from the clarification on the earlier rumors.

The other side of the world, whereas, is employing different regulatory strategies over borders. Eased travel restrictions have been recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for fully vaccinated individuals from 61 countries. On top of that, CDC has accordingly lowered the Travel Health Notices (THNs) of another 50 nations and territories, with China classified as the one of the countries at the lowest risk level. In Europe, meanwhile, a Digital Covid Certificate is in the making in hopes of exempting vaccinated holders from testing or quarantine when traveling within the EU. It seems that when both US and EU are working to normalize the coronavirus and restore the freedom of travel, China is going in the opposite direction. So, why is China, once crowned with its self-claimed unparalleled victory over the pandemic, widening its clampdown on the border control at this point?

The most pragmatic reason is the China’s questionable vaccine efficacy. Any voice that may pose a challenge to the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines is either silenced or “corrected” within the territory, whether it is research data from Brazilian clinical trials that showed China’s Sinovac vaccine was only 50.4% effective or a rare public admission of the low efficacy of China’s vaccines by the country’s top disease control official. Despite the reiterative promotion of its vaccines by the Chinese government, it is reasonable to extrapolate the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines is not up to par. The government’s ambition of winning the race for herd immunity is nothing short of faltering, if not failing. That kind of negative unpredictability, however, is by no means allowed to be disseminated within the territory. To sustain China’s asserted “systemic superiority” over western countries and its self-proclaimed high vaccine efficacy – for its domestic ruling as well as its carefully-crafted “vaccine diplomacy” – any drastic action to continue its legendary success in the Covid war under the leadership of CCP will come in handy. Curbing the free movement of individuals is one of the drastic actions that CCP is adept at, and banning the passport application may merely be an appetizer.

In an era where all western media are biased against China in the eyes of CCP, any potential leak of “misinformation” compromising the national interest could be weaponized by “anti-China forces” to besmirch or even undermine a rising China. For the time being, China is single-handedly fighting the international community’s growing appeal for a further investigation into the origin of coronavirus in Wuhan. Newly infected Chinese citizens travelling abroad could only add fuel to the fire for the world is already deeply concerned with China’s coronavirus cover-up in the early days of the pandemic from last year. Those who survived the outbreak in Wuhan or possess insider information could become “ammunition” for the West’s snipe at China in this covid-origin-investigation battle. In that respect, the ban on passport application is more likely to hinder “exported cases” rather than “imported cases”.

Compared to China’s tainted international reputation, CCP may find the country’s internal affairs more worrying at this stage – not only due to the impact of rekindled pandemic on the already sluggish economy, but the personnel management inside the government. Sometime between July and August every year, the clandestine Beidaihe Meeting is held. Chinese highest-ranking leaders, including the retired ones, convene at the seaside retreat of Beidaihe in Hebei Province to discuss national policies. The meeting, despite its alleged informality, has been traditionally regarded as one of the most important conferences that can change the track of China’s politics. As the 20th Party Congress in 2022 is approaching, this year’s conference has attained extra significance for it could be decisive for Xi Jinping’s ambition to seek a third term of presidency. Cutting off domestic citizens from communication with the outside world by suspending passport application at this critical point seems to be a necessary means to his end. After all, it is support from “locked” Chinese citizens who are immersed with praise and worship for Xi that lays the very foundation of the legitimacy of his reappointment.

The newly-established physical “Great Firewall” is also reciprocating its digital form with increasingly tightened information control. That is a move which has exacerbated the already-severe lack of information transparency in China, one direct consequence of which is the declining public trust in the government. Following the intermittent speculations of the underreporting of Wuhan’s real death toll, information that carries even a mite of “negative energy”, once deemed to be a potential threat to the harmony of the society, necessitates meticulous censorship, if not a full-scale cover-up. Could the confirmed cases of the new round of outbreak in the country also be underreported? That is one of those questions only CCP can answer, but it never will.

Two centuries ago, China’s closed borders were coercively opened in the first Opium War by Britain. Once again, China shut its door when globalization has connected the world more closely than ever before. It seems that oppression has prevailed over freedom and autocracy over democracy in this country. However, the free will of people on this land is not extinct yet – it could be sparked by Chinese college students protesting to protect their academic interests, or by the brave passers-by tearing down the barricades used to block floral tributes to those who died from the catastrophic flood hitting Zhengzhou in late July. I have no doubt that the door is bound to be opened again. But this time, whether it will be opened from the inside or the outside could be a turning point – not only for the track of the country, but the trajectory of the world.

Jiachen Shi
Jiachen Shi
Jiachen Shi is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Tulane University. He received his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Liverpool and International Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCEi) from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include U.S.-China relations, American politics, political psychology, and political economy.