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2020-11-03 | All chapters

European Chamber Stance on Further Restrictions on the Return of Legal Residents to China

Background

On 30th October, multiple Chinese embassies across Europe published new requirements for foreign residents and Chinese nationals attempting to return to China. Starting from 7th November, returnees will be required to obtain a Certified Health Declaration (CHD) form from a Chinese embassy/consulate. To apply for the CHD form, returnees will need results from two COVID-19 tests: a nucleic acid one and an antibody one. Once acquired, these documents need to be emailed to the Chinese embassy/consulate, which will then verify the information and, if appropriate, approve the application and email a stamped CHD form. The samples for the two tests must have been taken no more than 48 hours prior to boarding the flight. The announcements recommend that direct flights be taken, as anyone with a transit flight will need to repeat this process in the transit country before boarding a flight to China.

Announcement posted by the Chinese embassy in Belgium: http://be.chineseembassy.org/eng/sghd/t1828106.htm

Stance

The European Chamber recognises that these changes have been made in order to enhance public health protection in China. Having successfully managed the pandemic after the initial lockdown in the early days of 2020, China has been able to effectively recover – a fact that European companies in this market are grateful for.

While the number of cases in foreign countries has climbed steeply in recent weeks, perhaps increasing the chance that positive cases could enter China, the European business community sees no reason to change what is already a demonstrably effective system. Nearly all positive cases in recent months have been from returnees, only a very small number of which are foreign nationals. Cases have been accurately identified through extensive testing and the spread of the virus has been halted due to the centralised quarantine system.

Unfortunately, while technically leaving the door open, these changes imply a de facto ban on anyone trying to get back to their lives, work and families in China.

In many countries, the COVID-19 nucleic acid test cannot be completed and reported within the required 48 hours. Recent returnees have reported needing to first fly to a region where testing turnaround was fast enough for the Chinese authorities before getting last-minute approval prior to boarding. Such additional travel only increases the chance of further spreading of the virus. Furthermore, the antibody test is not widely available in many countries, with those tests being prioritised for essential and frontline workers. It also remains unclear why a positive antibody test result would disqualify returnees, as many of those with antibodies had the virus months ago and present no significantly greater risk than those without antibodies. Even if these tests could be procured, the chances of being able to coordinate them is low.

The need for test results to be verified by Chinese diplomatic staff in the local embassy/consulate, adds additional uncertainty. Many foreign nationals attempting to return in recent months reported lengthy administrative delays due to manpower limitations. Added to the complexity is the need to book a direct flight in a period during which airlines have cancelled most routes.

The many legal residents still stuck outside of China’s borders are eager to return to their lives and work here. The European Chamber is deeply concerned about reports from its member companies that some foreign employees stuck outside of China have given up on returning altogether, or have been stationed elsewhere by their headquarters. These are talented foreign experts, many of whom have spent years in China developing a strong understanding of the language and culture. Losing them is an unfavourable outcome not only for their companies, but also for China.

Finally, the communication of these new rules has been inconsistent across different jurisdictions. The English translations of the rules provided by the Chinese embassies in countries as diverse as Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand and the USA are noticeably different. This has generated confusion, which is exacerbated by the fact that these rules have been released at different times. A single, definitive message with official translations released by the MFA, then shared on the websites of embassies and consulates would be welcomed.

The European Chamber stands ready to provide support where necessary, and urges China’s authorities to reconsider this most recent change, and to instead continue to apply its successful testing and quarantine system to effectively manage the pandemic while providing a workable path for legal residents to return.

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Yichi Zhang