China has simplified its visa policy for foreigners applying to enter the Chinese mainland via Hong Kong who have received China-produced COVID-19 vaccines, which experts said shows the authorities' confidence in the efficacy and safety of the Chinese vaccines and will facilitate personnel exchanges.
The Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region issued a notice on Friday to exempt foreign visa applicants who have received a Chinese vaccine from providing health certification. Chinese experts said it can be seen as a trial for China to explore vaccine visas and hopefully can be expanded to other places.
In view of resuming people-to-people exchanges between China and other countries in an orderly manner, starting from March 15 (Monday), the office will provide facilitation for visa applicants who have been inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines produced in China and obtained vaccination certificates, read a statement the office released on its website on Friday.
The facilitation is aimed at exploring a more flexible and efficient immigration policy during the pandemic, including the policy of entering the Chinese mainland after landing in Hong Kong from abroad, Li Xiaobin, a Hong Kong studies expert at Nankai University in Tianjin, told the Global Times on Saturday.
"Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland have taken different anti-epidemic measures. In the current context of increasing people-to-people exchanges, the more flexible visa measures will make the mobility of personnel in Hong Kong easier and smoother," Li said.
China has nodded to the establishment of an international vaccination mutual recognition platform. Some experts said that Hong Kong and Macao regions are proper places for China to conduct the trial program of the platform and then gradually promote the model to foreign areas.
If conducted successfully, the project can be promoted to more port cities in China such as Guangzhou, which neighbors Hong Kong, as well as be expanded to a mutual recognition program with countries that have used Chinese vaccines, for example, many countries in Southeast Asia, Tian Guangqiang, assistant research fellow with the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Sunday.
At last, people inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines produced by foreign manufactures would also be included. But to reach such mutual recognition, a pre-certification issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) would be needed to make different countries trust each others' vaccines, Tian said.
In February, WHO experts inspected the factories of Chinese vaccine producers Sinovac Biotech and the Beijing Institute of Biological Products under Sinopharm in Beijing. The Global Times learned from Sinovac Biotech that it is possible the World Health Organization (WHO) would approve the company's COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March.
The WHO's participation will also help coordinate the issue at a larger scale.
Currently the US, UK and EU are also considering whether to introduce a digital passport that will allow citizens to show they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. But if these countries and organizations promote the issue independently, the scale of the exchange resumption will be limited and it is possible it would bring about exclusiveness against vaccines that are not produced in these places, or those who do not have access to vaccines, experts said.
According to the new Chinese visa policy, foreign nationals and their family members visiting the Chinese mainland to resume work and production need to provide only the documents required before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic when applying for a visa.
The scope of applicants eligible for applying for a visa out of emergent humanitarian needs will also be expanded; holders of valid Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) business travel cards will also have easier process to apply for a visa, according to the office's notice.
Many APEC members have authorized the use of Chinese vaccines, including Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
So far, China has donated or is donating COVID vaccines to 69 developing countries in urgent need, and is exporting vaccines to 43 countries. More than 60 countries have authorized the use of Chinese vaccines, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference on March 10.
More to explore
The facilitation applies only to applicants who have been inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines produced in China, either having received two doses of Chinese-made vaccines with the stipulated gap in between, or having received a single-dose Chinese-made vaccine at least 14 days prior to the application, and succeeded in obtaining a vaccination certificate, the office noted.
Proof of a negative COVID-19 nucleic acid test result and the Health and Travel Record Declaration Form for Visa Application are no longer required, according to the notice.
Other applicants still have to follow the procedure stated previously, which requires all applicants to provide COVID-19 negative certificates tested within 72 hours along with a health and travel declaration and an invitation.
Li pointed out that the facilitation has set out specific restrictions on personnel and conditions of use.
"Such careful consideration and precise deployment will facilitate the flexible use and promotion of this model to more places in China in the future," he noted. But surely more details need to be considered.
Tao Lina, a Shanghai-based vaccine expert, told the Global Times on Saturday that the facilitation exempts applicants from a certificate to prove that they have not been infected with COVID-19.
But detailed policies are still needed to regulate the quarantine measures on international arrivals before and after they enter China, Tao noted.
The Global Times searched the websites of Shenzhen customs and disease control and prevention authorities, but failed to find any notice about anti-epidemic measures related to the new visa policy in Hong Kong.