China Cutting People's Passports so They Can't Leave Country—Reports

Chinese authorities have dismissed citizen reports about passport "clipping" and the seizure of green cards by border control, after the country's top immigration authority restricted travel in order to reduce inbound COVID cases.

Unverified reports emerged after China's National Immigration Administration (NIA) announced a ban on "non-essential" foreign travel by Chinese citizens on May 12. The new policy was on top of already tight measures that regulated interprovincial travel in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.

Anecdotal accounts on Chinese social media websites reported increased scrutiny at ports of entry, including additional inquiries about the reasons for travel and the next planned exit. Earlier this month, one flyer who had returned from Bangkok said border officers in Guangzhou, in south China, were cutting the corners of Chinese passports, invalidating them in the process.

In other cases, travelers said green cards and other foreign residency permits were confiscated to discourage more travel, which the Chinese government has identified as among the activities that increases COVID transmission in China.

A May 10 report by Radio Free Asia quoted travelers who said passport clipping had happened throughout the pandemic, but the policy was now also affecting students who wished to study abroad.

The report quoted police in the central Chinese province of Hunan who said residents were asked to hand over their passports for safekeeping, to be returned "when the pandemic is over," in one of the more extreme examples of apparent zero-COVID enforcement.

Residents with clipped passports would need to apply for a new one in order to travel again, but China's immigration authority has issued a low number of the documents during the pandemic. Its nebulous definition of non-essential travel would appear to let local immigration authorities judge the necessity of individual cases.

Responding to what it called "disinformation in foreign media," the National Immigration Administration said on May 13 it was still providing services for necessary travel. It listed study, research, trade and seeking medical attention in the essential category.

"The wider public fully understands and has responded positively to the implementation of a strict entry and exit policy," the administration said, its statement noting that the change would effectively reduce the risk of reintroducing travelers who had been infected abroad.

Reports about China suspending the issuance of passports or cutting green cards to prevent departures were "distorting and smearing our entry and exit management policy," said the NIA.

China Denies Passport Clipping, Green Card Seizures
A passenger, left, hands his passport to an employee at the China Southern Airlines counter at Fiumicino airport in Rome, Italy, on January 23, 2020. China’s immigration authority denied cutting passports and foreign residency permits in a statement on May 13, 2022, after citizen reports said travel documents were being “clipped” to restrict foreign travel amid the COVID pandemic. AFP via Getty Images/TIZIANA FABI

Western governments faced several rounds of protest in the first months of the pandemic as citizens feared new emergency laws could be retained long after they were necessary.

In China, these concerns are manifested in ever-tightening oversight of the public as part of Beijing's zero-COVID approach. Renewed government efforts to rid the country of the virus for good are justifying new tools that could boost China's authoritarian control.

For two years, municipal governments have required health apps in order to use public transport or enter certain venues. This system of big-data processing is among the administrative tools that look set to stay after COVID.

Earlier this month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other top officials vowed to uphold the government's zero-COVID policy and oppose doubters.

The harsh lockdowns and isolation measures have come at a high social and economic cost, but they have tamped down infections in Shanghai, which reported three consecutive days of "social zero COVID"—no positive cases outside of those in quarantine—on Tuesday.

But the battle is far from over. Beijing continues to manage an Omicron outbreak that many hope won't necessitate a repeat of Shanghai's fate. Last Thursday, officials in the Chinese capital sought to dispel rumors that the city was on the verge of a lockdown.

Over the weekend, Chinese social media moved to censor images from China's prestigious Peking University, where students demonstrated against administrators who sought to impose new quarantine rules.

Elsewhere, there's increasing evidence that China is routinizing and institutionalizing its approach to COVID. On May 17, the northeast port city of Dalian started a citywide testing regime that will see men tested on Tuesdays, women on Thursdays and both groups on Saturdays.

By the end of the year, Chinese cities are expected to operate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of permanent PCR testing sites throughout the country.