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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

China responds to US COVID testing rule with a collective shrug

An Air China passenger jet at the Beijing Capital International Airport in October.

By Mike Ives, Amy Chang Chien, Claire Fu and Tiffany May

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-19 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 startup 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 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 Macao, 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 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.

The CDC said 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.

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 CDC rule 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 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 PCR, test within 48 hours before departure.

At a routine news briefing in Beijing on Thursday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson 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.”

It was unclear Thursday how or whether the new CDC rule would affect China’s delicate relationship with the United States. When President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, China’s 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 CDC 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.”

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

That was the tone 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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