China Closes its Windows to the World: When Will They Reopen?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 10

Foreign travelers at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai (source: Xinhua)

Throughout the pandemic, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has focused on sharply limiting international travel as a risk vector for the spread of COVID-19, and as a result has kept its borders largely closed. As Beijing edges closer to a total shutdown and lockdowns persist in several other large cities, including Shanghai; the already stringent entry and exit restrictions on Chinese citizens implemented as part of the “dynamic clearance” zero-COVID policy have been further tightened. At a special meeting on May 10, the National Immigration Administration (NIA) called for “strict implementation” of existing polices barring “non-essential” outbound travel (China News Service, May 12). The NIA stated that full cooperation with these measures is vital to “win the battle to defend Shanghai” and to “vigorously support Beijing’s epidemic prevention work.” This week, the NIA provided further guidance as to what constitutes “essential departures“(必要出境, xuyao chujing), which include business; scientific, technical, medical and research cooperation; academic study; and “urgent personal affairs” such as funerals and elder care (Sina, May 24). The new regulations build on the NIA’s imposition of tighter restrictions on international travel last July, which institutionalized a pattern of strong discouragement of “non-essential” overseas travel by authorities since early 2020 (Xinhuanet, July 30, 2021). The impact of this de facto moratorium on overseas travel was evident even before these restrictions were issued with the PRC issuing only 2% as many passports in the first half of 2021, as it did during the same period in 2019 (Sixth Tone, August 4, 2021).

The immediate driver of China’s tighter exit and entry curbs is the COVID-19 pandemic. However, whether the travel restrictions that have been imposed since 2020 will be fully rolled back when the pandemic finally recedes is an open question. General Secretary Xi Jinping’s continued push to restore the centrality of political ideology in Chinese life is supported by limiting citizens’ international exposure to potentially corrupting foreign influences. Instilling both a nationalist and Marxist-Leninist mindset in China’s youth is central to these efforts. In an address to early career officials at CCP’s Central Party School last fall, Xi emphasized that the “world is undergoing changes unseen in a century,” and as a result, the period of “national rejuvenation has entered a critical phase” defined by mounting risks and challenges” (People’s Daily, September 2, 2021). Xi then called on young cadres at all levels to “abandon illusions” and “dare to struggle. ” In this mindset, engagement with the world is not the priority; rather, emphasis is placed on the struggle against external forces to achieve Xi’s vision of China’s national rejuvenation in a challenging and often times hostile international environment.

Study At Home?

For years, top Chinese graduates flocked abroad to pursue advanced degrees, but those numbers were already in free fall before the recent travel curbs. Consider for example, recent trends for graduates from two of China’s most elite universities: Tsinghua and Peking Universities. From 2019 to 2021, the number of Tsinghua graduates going abroad for graduate studies fell from 15.3 to 6.9 percent, while the proportion of Peking University students dropped from 14.8% to 8.17% (China Youth Daily, February 14).

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long taken an instrumental approach to Chinese students studying abroad using overseas student organizations under the umbrella of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) to support its influence operations in foreign countries. In an address to one such group — the North European and American  alumni association — during the CCP’s centennial celebrations last year, UFWD Deputy Minister Tan Tianxing (谭天星) called on overseas students to carry forward what General Secretary Xi Jinping identified as the CCP’s “four great achievements” (PRC National People’s Congress, July 26, 2021). As laid out by Xi, the four achievements are- 1) Saving the country by fostering a new democratic revolution; 2) Bringing socialist revolution to China; 3) Enriching and strengthening the country through reform, opening and socialist modernization; 4) Creating great new achievements of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era (Xinhuanet, July 29, 2021). Tan emphasized that overseas students have and will continue to make “important contributions” to these efforts. The prevalence of United Front affiliated Chinese student organizations in colleges campuses in Western countries means that many students from the PRC who express dissenting views face harassment and potential retaliation against family members at home (ProPublica, November 30, 2021). As a result, Chinese students who venture overseas in search of greater academic freedom from the long arm of the party-state, may still not find it abroad.

In addition to COVID-19 constraints and political pressures, the cache of a foreign degree on China’s domestic job market has diminished considerably over the last several years. As Chinese schools have moved up the global rankings, foreign schools have lost some of their luster, and are seen by some students as treating foreign enrollees as “cash cows” (South China Morning Post, November 27, 2021). Such perceptions are further reinforced by Chinese youths’ high levels of nationalist sentiment, which have been sharpened by official propaganda and state media, particularly amidst the intensifying geopolitical rivalry with the U.S. In 2020, the number of Chinese students enrolled at U.S. higher education institutions fell by 15 percent (CGTN, December 7, 2021).

Keep the Flies Out

The decline in Chinese traveling overseas is mirrored by a drop-off in foreigners visiting China for tourism, work and study. The stringent COVID-19 requirements, which necessitate at least a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, strongly discourage all but the most determined foreign visitors  (U.S. Embassy & Consulates in China, Updated May 25). In the context of China’s relations with the West, these developments damage people-to-people exchanges that were already atrophying before the pandemic. Hong Kong’s 2020 National Security Law, and the repression that preceded it, has largely negated its place as Asia’s hub for international civil society, and diminished the city’s traditional role as a meeting point between China and the wider world. The nearly three year-long detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor (widely considered hostage diplomacy by Beijing in response to Ottawa’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request) cast a pall over think tank and policy research exchanges between China and the West. Last summer, the Asia Society’s ChinaFile surveyed China experts as to whether they planned to return to China once the current COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed.  Of those surveyed, only 44 percent of respondents stated they would either definitely or probably return to the PRC, while 40 percent answered that they would definitely or probably not return (ChinaFile, June 21, 2021).

Over the last decade, the number of Americans and Europeans living in China for work and study has also declined considerably. The decreasing foreign populations in Shanghai and Beijing, which have long been among China’s top magnets for expatriates, illustrate this trend. From the 2010 to the 2020 census, the number of foreigners residing in Shanghai fell by 20% from approximately 209,000 to 163,000. Over the same period, the foreign population in Beijing declined by over 40% going from 107,000 to 63,000 (National Bureau of Statistics, May 11, 2021; April 29, 2011). While zero-COVID restrictions have been a major driver of the declining number of foreigners in these cities, other politico-economic factors are also relevant. Last year, as part of the tightening of regulations on private industry through Xi’s drive to promote “common prosperity”, the government banned for-profit, private educational companies (PRC Ministry of Education, July 24, 2021). The ban applied to the large number of English-language tutoring services that have sprung up in Shanghai, Beijing and other big metropolises around China over the last two decades. For example, following the new regulations, Wall Street English, an Italian international adult English training company that in mid-2021 had 30 tutoring centers with 1,000 employees, many of them foreign, was forced to close all of its locations in China (Global Times, August 13, 2021).

China’s former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said that “when a window is opened, fresh air and sunlight may come in, but flies may also enter.” Deng invoked this maxim to counter hardliners intent on stemming “spiritual pollution” from abroad during the early reform era. For Deng, it illustrated the need to strike a balance between engaging with the world, and protecting China’s citizens from malign foreign influences. The saying was also often invoked to guide the PRC’s early approach to the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was to allow some knowledge in, but also to establish the “great firewall” to limit the penetration of China by negative Western influences such as pornography and vulgar popular culture (China Daily, August 4, 2009). However, over the last several years, the PRC’s approach has seemingly shifted to one of closing the window to keep the flies out.

The decline in people-to-people interactions between China and the outside world parallels the government’s increased focused on countering foreign espionage. Last April, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) issued new regulations to” strengthen and standardize” anti-espionage work, not only in government organs, but also in business enterprises and social organizations, hence emphasizing the need for a whole of society response to the threat from foreign spies (, April 26, 2021). In addition to creating a list of high-risk “key entities” that are required to create systems to monitor and root out foreign espionage, the law greatly expands the investigatory powers of MSS and other security organs (China Law Translate, April 27, 2021). The new regulations are likely to further damage people-to-people ties between China and the international community by discouraging overseas travel and increasing suspicion of foreigners in China. For example, a State-Owned Enterprise executive stated that in response to the legislation, staff planning business trips to foreign countries, particularly those in the Five Eyes alliance of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand “have been told to strictly report their travel destinations, agendas, and meetings with foreign personnel, and they must get approval from their direct superiors before the applications are reviewed” by headquarters (Global Times, April 26, 2021). In response to the law, many SOEs have sought to minimize travel to such “high risk” countries altogether.


The political component of China’s fraying people-to-people ties with the rest of the world, particularly the West, and its increasing physical isolation from the international community, aligns with state promotion of nationalism and economic self-sufficiency. This suggests that China’s current closing of its borders to international travel is likely to outlast the pandemic.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: