SHANGHAI (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): A series of measures rolled out by China in recent months that slightly eases entry for foreigners has raised a glimmer of hope that the country is setting the stage for a reopening.
The latest move saw Beijing last week quietly announce that those applying for working or family visas no longer need "PU Letters", a letter of invitation allowing foreigners to enter the country.
The news was initially posted on the websites of Chinese embassies in several countries, including the United States, South Korea and Indonesia but the Foreign Ministry has confirmed to business groups that the policy will apply to all countries.
Given that it applies only to certain groups of visa applicants and "zero-Covid" remains at the top of the national agenda, recent developments that have cracked open China's tightly shut borders somewhat have raised cautious optimism at best among foreigners in the business and student community.
This month, some international students were finally allowed to return to their Chinese university studies, including Pakistani and Russian ones who entered the country on specially chartered flights. Masters students from the Schwarzman Scholars Programme run by the elite Tsinghua University were allowed in last year.
But the hundreds of students are a far cry from the nearly half a million enrolled in Chinese universities before the pandemic. Wuhan, the original Covid-19 epicentre, was popular for studying medicine among those from South Asia and Africa.
Officials have also announced that there will be more international flights into the country in the coming months, while certain cities such as Beijing and Xiamen are trialling shorter quarantine periods of seven to 10 days, a vast reduction from an isolation period that could go up to 21 days.
Pre-departure testing for people headed to China has eased slightly in several countries in recent weeks.
"Each of these measures is a step in the right direction, but more streamlining is needed," said Colm Rafferty, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in China.
He noted that the chamber's members, which includes firms like confectionary company Mars and co-working space provider WeWork, have repeatedly cited international business travel restrictions as their top concern.
"The American business community in China welcomes this development," he said about China's doing away with the PU Letters for several types of visas.
Rafferty added that the move comes after "strong lobbying by AmCham China at all levels of the relevant Chinese government authorities, most recently during our meetings with Premier Li Keqiang and Commerce Minister Wang Wentao".
Short for "Putong" or "normal", the letter has been a visa prerequisite since late March 2020, when a travel ban was put into effect at the height of the pandemic.
Companies had to apply for the letter from the Foreign Affairs Bureau in their respective cities, justifying why their employee was essential to operations. This process could take months and was ostensibly opaque, with each application reviewed on a case-by case basis and the criteria for issuing a PU Letter never made public.
It is unclear how many of these letters were approved in the last two years.
However, Beijing-based lawyer James Zimmerman, who advises foreign firms operating in China, said he does not think the lifting of PU Letter requirements "is a huge victory".
"Businesses still want to give China a chance but many are rethinking where China fits into their global strategy," he said, adding that the disruption in supply chains during the Shanghai lockdown was a rude awakening.
While China has increasingly emphasised on a domestically driven economy, foreign talent is still key to the Chinese economy whether it be technical know-how in the construction of attractions such as Universal Studios in Beijing, the running of international hospitality chains, and even firms manufacturing tech components going into high-end devices like smartphones.
In Shanghai, where more than 60,000 foreign-invested enterprises contributed about one-third of the city's tax revenue before the pandemic, lockdowns and the travel ban have forced many multinational firms to move regional roles to other countries like Singapore.
Anecdotally, expats have also been streaming out of the city. This comes after the financial hub was put through a brutal two-month lockdown that saw many running low on food at some point, while others were shocked at the draconian measures imposed by what many consider China's most cosmopolitan city.
Those operating in other parts of China are also not confident that the easing of local restrictions in various provinces will stand for much if the central government does not implement the rules nationwide.
"At the end of the day, instructions have to come from (Beijing)," said a Sichuan-based entrepreneur, who declined to be named.
"Until they either move away from zero-Covid or the virus goes away entirely, we're still going to be stuck in variations of 2020 for a very long time."