China is resuming visa processing for foreigners from dozens of countries, but only if they have been inoculated against Covid-19 with a Chinese-made vaccine.
The move has raised questions about the motivations behind the demand, given China’s vaccines are not approved in many of the countries to which it has opened travel and that it will not accept foreign vaccines made elsewhere, including those approved by the World Health Organization.
Beijing had largely banned non-essential travel into China during the pandemic. Resumption of travel is a key driver for economic recovery and many countries are discussing carefully negotiated bubbles, or mutually recognised vaccination passports, as they implement domestic vaccine rollouts.
The announcements made by Chinese embassies in about 20 countries this week vary slightly for each country but mostly pledge a return to pre-pandemic visa processing for some groups, so as to resume “people-to-people exchanges in an orderly manner”.
So far it is open to foreigners from places including Hong Kong, the US, the UK, India, Australia, Iraq, Thailand, Croatia, Israel, Pakistan and the Philippines. Any prospective entrants must have taken either the full two-dose course of a vaccine, or a single dose vaccine at least 14 days before travelling, but the vaccine must be one of China’s domestically produced shots. Negative Covid tests and quarantine rules still apply.
China first announced changes to visa processes for foreigners in Hong Kong, where China’s Sinovac is one of the vaccines already being administered to the public. Chinese vaccines have also been approved for use in the Philippines, Thailand and Iraq, but in several other countries to which China has offered the travel option, there is no Chinese vaccine available.
That meant people in Australia, for instance, who can only receive an approved vaccine, prescribed by a medical practitioner were excluded from China’s offer by default.
China now has five vaccines approved for either general or emergency use, including three that are also being distributed to other countries either through trade or aid. The push to supply internationally has been labelled a “vaccine diplomacy” campaign to boost China’s place as a global health contributor, with take-up mostly in Asia, Africa and South America.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, 16 March, Zhao Lijian, the ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, denied the rule was designed to push other countries to recognise China’s vaccines.
“Our proposal is made after thoroughly considering the safety and efficacy of Chinese vaccines, this is an arrangement made by the Chinese side unilaterally. It is a different thing from vaccine recognition,” Zhao said.