China halts short-term visas for South Korea and Japan over Covid travel curbs

China has suspended issuing short-term visas in South Korea and Japan after announcing it would retaliate against countries that required negative Covid-19 tests from Chinese travellers.

China has ditched mandatory quarantines for arrivals and allowed travel to resume across its border with Hong Kong since Sunday, removing the last major restrictions under the “zero-Covid” regime that it abruptly began dismantling in early December after protests against the curbs.

But the virus is spreading unchecked among its 1.4 billion people and worries over the scale and impact of its outbreak have prompted Japan, South Korea, the US and other countries to require negative tests for travellers from China.

Although China imposes similar testing requirements for all arrivals, the foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said on Tuesday entry curbs for Chinese travellers were “discriminatory” and China would take “reciprocal measures”.

In the first retaliatory move, the Chinese embassy in South Korea suspended issuing short-term visas for South Korean visitors. It would adjust the policy subject to the lifting of South Korea’s “discriminatory entry restrictions” against China, the embassy said on its official WeChat account.

The Chinese embassy in Japan later announced a similar move, saying the mission and its consulates had suspended the issuing of visas from Tuesday. The embassy statement did not say when they would resume.

The move came soon after Japan toughened Covid rules for travellers coming directly from China, requiring a negative result of a PCR test taken less than 72 hours before departure, and a negative test on arrival.

With the virus let loose, China has stopped publishing daily infection tallies. It has been reporting five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn, figures that have been disputed by the World Health Organization and are inconsistent with funeral providers reporting increasing demand.

Some governments have raised concerns about Beijing’s data transparency as international experts predict at least 1 million deaths in China this year. Washington has also raised concerns about potential mutations of the virus.

China dismisses criticism over its data as politically motivated attempts to smear its “success” in handling the pandemic and said any future mutations were likely to be more infectious but less harmful. “Since the outbreak, China has had an open and transparent attitude,” Wang said.

But as infections increase across China’s vast rural hinterland, many Chinese, including elderly people, are not bothering to get tested.

State media downplayed the severity of the outbreak. An article in Health Times, a publication managed by People’s Daily, the ruling Communist party’s official newspaper, quoted several officials as saying infections had been declining in Beijing and several Chinese provinces.

Officials in the southern technology powerhouse, Shenzhen, announced on Tuesday that the city had also passed its peak.

Kan Quan, the director of the office of the Henan provincial epidemic prevention and control, said nearly 90% of people in the central province of 100 million people had been infected as of 6 January.


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