The People’s Republic of China is experiencing rapid economic growth and change at a time when Western countries are seeing issues with their economy. Yet, in contrast to recent history, China’s approach to economic reform and globalization has been much more restrained. In fact, trade between its neighbors the PRC and neighboring countries has remained largely free of friction, especially when it comes to products imported from China into those countries. The major economic shifts taking place in the United States and Europe have not had any major ramifications on China, nor have efforts to shift its economy away from the state-run direction it has taken over the past three decades.
What this means for visitors wishing to travel to China is that there is no current law that would ban their travel or impose a travel ban based on their nationality or origin. It is important to understand that the PRC does have some control over the behavior of its domestic citizens, but not in the way that most foreign observers would view it. In recent years, China’s government has put into motion a series of legislative initiatives aimed at implementing greater control over the domestic populace, particularly the Falun Gong group, which practices meditation and other forms of spiritual activity. Recently, the PRC government implemented an exit ban, preventing citizens of China from traveling abroad until further notice. In practice, exit visas can only be issued for specific reasons by the authorities. However, for citizens of China who wish to travel outside of China to reach countries with whom they regularly interact, this exit ban provides a viable option.
Although the PRC’s efforts to bolster its domestic control mechanisms in recent years has not resulted in the exit ban being extended to non-Chinese citizens traveling to China or the issuing of visas, there have been instances in which the Chinese authorities may have used measures inconsistent with the Vienna Convention, which provides for reasonable practices among international visitors. For example, the PRC has restricted entry into China of citizens of certain Tibetan monasteries, and the authorities have not allowed entry into China of representatives of the Dalai Lama. Similarly, the PRC’s failure to issue visas to some Tibetan monks associated with the Dalai Lama’s monastery has met with criticism from both the Tibetan community in China and the international community, who argue that such actions violate the rights to freedom of religion and expression recognized by the United Nations.
The lack of clarity regarding the scope of the Vienna Convention and the scope of the freedom of movement protected by the Vienna Convention provides guidance to both foreign nationals traveling to China and to Chinese nationals traveling to China. Based on the period immediately following the reunification of China in 1948, the PRC authorities have not applied any visa restrictions on individuals who are associated with the Tibetans, or who are believed to be associated with the Dalai Lama. Similarly, the PRC has not applied a ban on traveling to and within China by citizens of Taiwan. The lack of action by the PRC authorities with regard to these issues may reflect a long-standing policy regarding respect for human rights and freedoms, but it is also possible that the lack of action reflects a much more constrained decision-making process than is reflected on the surface.
A growing number of foreign nationals traveling to China are apprehended and detained by the Chinese authorities at airports when passing through China or having arrived via Hong Kong or other locations outside China. Traveling by Air – The situation with respect to air travel to China is quite different from that with respect to land travel. Although China does not prohibit travel by air, it does prohibit travel by most forms of non-essential travel to China, including by foreigners intending to visit the Tibet or the SAR government areas.
Travel by Boat – As with air travel, the authorities of the PRC have not cracked down on the sea route between China and the Southeast Asian region (Southeastern China), or on a regular basis prohibit boat travel to China. However, on several occasions over the past decade, foreign nationals have been detained and returned to Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines on suspicion of trafficking in persons. The returnees were subjected to lengthy searches, including multiple FBI visits, before being returned to their point of origin. There is no indication that the PRC authorities have any information regarding any boats destined for China, although such boats would obviously fall under the range of activities which are overseen by the state security apparatus.
Travel by Plane – Although the United States does not presently restrict travel to China the same way it does to others who are subject to U.S. Visa approvals, the PRC does not permit travel by plane to the Chinese territory without express permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This can only be obtained from the Ministry of Public Security. If you are a U.S. citizen with a valid passport currently visiting China, you may apply for an exception to the one-way restriction. If your trip is intended as part of a study program, you should consider your options with regard to the visa requirements. You can talk to your U.S. Embassy or Consular Office in Beijing about your options.
The PRC authorities can only allow limited entries into China via passports issued by the PRC. Your passport will need to be valid for at least six months from the date of your entry. For some, this is a good opportunity to use the opportunity of a six month Chinese vacation, but for others it may well be a chance to observe the restrictions on visiting relatives who are not Chinese nationals and for some tourists, it could be a period of investigation by Chinese officials. If you are unable to obtain a six-month validity visa for yourself, you will still be able to visit China with your family by arranging a trip with a non-Chinese family group. Travel advice for people travelling to China is available from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, and from the British High Commission in Beijing.