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I read:

The Chinese government has announced visa-free entry for up to 15 days for 6 countries, including France, from December 1, 2023 to November 30, 2024. [Author: dda]

Why is China allowing visa-free entry for citizens of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia? Why specifically these countries?

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    Not so sure about Netherlands, but the other countries have relatively good and high levels of econ relations with China. With Netherlands it might be a case of trying to shame them or give wind to political divisions/opposition to a tougher stance. Nov 24, 2023 at 18:57

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According to news reports in Germany, one of the affected countries, the purpose is to strengthen the Chinese international tourism sector which was hard hit by pandemic restrictions. The purpose stated by China was foster exchange with these countries and to open China further, which would be broadly consistent with the presumed purpose. The report professes not to know why exactly the six countries and not others were selected.

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First, a brief (or rather not-so-brief) review of other countries with unilateral Chinese visa exemption.

Previously (before Covid), only three countries benefited from unilateral visa exemption to China: Japan, Singapore and Brunei.

Japan had and has important economic relations with China. China is the largest trade partner with Japan, and Japan was the most important source of foreign investment and aid in China for a significant amount of time (in lieu of war reparations). Today, it is still the second largest source of foreign businesses after the U.S. (counting ASEAN and EU countries separately). The visa exemption was primarily to facilitate business visits. Due to various other geopolitical factors, the visa exemption has been suspended.

Singapore is wealthy and an economic hub, additionally, it has a significant ethnic Chinese population (75%) having family ties in China. A unilateral visa-free policy facilitates both business exchanges, and reduces the bureaucracy needed to issue rubber-stamp family visit visas.

Now Brunei is an interesting case. Few official or obvious reasons exist. Possible reasons include a significant amount (~10%) of ethnic Chinese (though not so significant as Singapore or Malaysia), a small but wealthy country with outgoing tourists with spending powers and petroleum production. Brunei also has visa on arrival policies for many countries, including China, so it is also not as unilateral as it sounds.


Now going back to the recent announcement, no one is certain why these countries are chosen, but I can perhaps speculate.

First, I do not think attracting tourists to China is an important consideration for this announcement. It may bring more soft power benefits than economical. Domestic tourism is currently oversaturated in China, as evidenced by the reservation requirements of several tourists sites (practically unheard of in China before Covid). By the end of the National Day golden week (https://36kr.com/p/2465875377018756), the tourist numbers in 2023 had grown by 4% over 2019 and the revenue had grown by 1%. These numbers are still impacted by the remaining pandemic measures in the first quarter of 2023. Comparing the golden week alone, the number of tourists had grown by 20% over 2019 with revenue growing 5%.

Of course, this does not mean China doesn't want international tourists, since soft powers are still important to China now. Visa facilitation measures are also being rolled out worldwide (http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2023/1117/c1002-40120823.html), notably by introducing simplified application forms, temporary fingerprint collection waivers, more walk-in services without appointments. The availability of port visas (visas on arrival) and long-term stopover visa exemptions (e.g. 144-hour transit) are also being expanded.

Going by the official reason stated in the announcement of the visa exemption policy, the changes are "to promote the exchange of people between China and foreign countries and to serve high-quality development and high-level opening up to the outside world" (为进一步促进中外人员往来,服务高质量发展高水平对外开放). The latter are terms of art in Chinese politics, mainly concerning economical development. High-level opening up to the outside world refers primarily to opening up to foreign businesses and trade. If you search state propaganda on this term, international tourism is very rarely mentioned. Instead, it is often mentioned with the Belt and Road Initiative and other economic impacts. Some excerpts:

In recent years, China has insisted on opening up to the outside world on a larger scale, in wider fields, and at a deeper level, and has been interacting with the world with an attitude of becoming more open as it develops, jointly building a higher-level open world economic system, and exploring a win-win path. ... China has persisted in opening up to the outside world at a high level, deeply participated in the global industrial division of labor and cooperation, made good use of two kinds of domestic and international resources, and striven to expand the development space for Chinese-style modernization, and has benefited the world with its dividends from exporting commodities to promoting overseas investment. (Xinhua, published on the central government site)

From Xi Jinping himself:

[We shall] Promote high-level opening up to the outside world, steadily expand the opening up of rules, regulations, management, standards and other systems, accelerate the building of a strong trade power, promote the high-quality development of the "One Belt, One Road", and safeguard a diversified and stable international economic pattern and economic and trade relations.


France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain

happen to be the five countries with highest GDP in the European Union, and the five largest trading partners of China in EU.

Unlike the tourism industry, foreign investments in China has not recovered and is in fact decreasing. Domestic economic growth is also weakened. Attracting foreign investors is likely the most important consideration in announcing the visa exemptions for the selected EU countries.

France, Germany and the Netherlands are the three largest foreign investment sources from EU in China. Despite the Dutch government's geopolitical positions, Dutch companies are still important to China, both in high-tech areas and relatively "low"-level manufacturing. The Netherlands is China's top investment destination in EU and second largest source of capital from EU (after Germany).

In terms of foreign investments in China, Spain and Italy on the other hand trails behind countries like Ireland, Austria, Luxemburg or Sweden. But Spain and Italy maintains a relatively good relation with China.

GDP or trading volume is also a reasonably objective measure that China can justify to other countries without directly spiting countries that have less good relations currently (since China still wants good economic relations with them and possibly more in the future).


Another important European partner for China is the UK. However, UK and China already had bilateral agreement to issue visas valid for up to 10 years. The EU countries involved here however are constrained by the Schengen agreement and relevant visa rules. Otherwise, I think Germany and France would conclude such long-term visa agreements with China (like UK, US, Canada, Australia, Israel).


The selection may also be based on prior discussions on certain facilitation measures in return.

France did announce, in response to the visa exemption announcement, the expansion of five-year circulation visas for Chinese master graduates who studied in France for at least one semester (though details are unclear).

German ambassador noted the reduction in appointment waiting times for Chinese visa applicants. This is a significant achievement: several months ago, an appointment spot for German visas (even for work and studies) was extremely hard to find. At one time in March, there was only appointments available in October. Even in August, the first available appointment was in November (https://zx.fuzhou.gov.cn/zz/csfz/fzdt/202308/t20230808_4651385.htm). People were using automated scripts and paying third parties hundreds of euros to attempt to grab a spot. Germany has now reopened many visa application centers (https://visa.vfsglobal.com/chn/en/deu), with appointments available in days at some centers.

Since Spain and Italy are also popular destinations for Chinese tourists, they might also have promised some measures in return, although I do not see any announcement so far.


Malaysia

Malaysia falls into a different category. It has a significant ethnically Chinese population and entertains good relations with China. Though unconfirmed officially, it is also expected Malaysia will grant Chinese nationals visa exemption up to 30 days soon. Currently, Chinese nationals already benefits from a simplified eVisa process for tourist visits.

I suspect that this is still being announced as a unilateral action to give both parties time to evaluate the measures. This may be in part due to the (perceived or real) prevalence of fraud, organized crimes and human trafficking related to Chinese nationals in Southeast Asia (e.g. https://thechinaproject.com/2023/08/10/chinese-tourists-spurn-cambodia-and-myanmar-due-to-fears-of-human-trafficking/); a trial period may alleviate (or confirm) the concerns that Malaysia may become a transit point for these.

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  • I do not think attracting tourists to China is an important consideration for this announcement. You disagree then with Reuters: China has been taking steps in recent months - including restoring international flight routes - to revive its tourism sector following three years of strict COVID-19 measures that largely shut its borders to the outside world.
    – user103496
    Nov 26, 2023 at 2:58
  • @user103496 Yes. The recovery of international flights serves, at this moment, foremost for international business and overseas Chinese (incl. international students and researchers). With the current state of recovery of China-US/Canada flights, tourism is basically not a concern since the supply right now is not sufficient for non-leisure travels. The following graph in the Reuters report regarding "re-establish its image" is true and forms part of the consideration in facilitation measures, which I have recognized (but not an important one IMO).
    – xngtng
    Nov 26, 2023 at 9:44
  • @user103496 I have also added to the answer with interpretation of the official reason given by the Chinese government, which focus on economical foreign trade considerations.
    – xngtng
    Nov 26, 2023 at 10:01
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BTW, the announcement was timed to coincide with a visit from France's foreign minister to China. France and Germany have kept significant trade and investment ties with China, so I'm least surprised they'd be on the list.

Much of the more Eastern European members of the EU are also considered to be more in the US camp, so China not making their life easier is probably less surprising. Plus, their tourists probably don't have as much dough to spend.

I'm slightly more surprised on the olive branch extended to Italy given that they recently were making strong statements about pulling out of "Belt and Road"--but perhaps it's because they didn't yet do it? It's also been reported that

Meloni’s plan [...] will substitute the MoU on the BRI with a series of commercial agreements. That would signal Italy’s intention to maintain good relations with Beijing, but without the strategic implications that being part of China’s flagship geoeconomic project entails for a U.S. ally [...]

So perhaps not that big of a deal for China, in practical terms.

I'm less sure about the Dutch who helped the US with tech embargoes etc. OTOH, CGTN said at one point that the Dutch still have some investments in China.

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