China’s expanding travel curbs are cutting off more state workers from the rest of the world

In 2011, Matthew, then a junior official in one of China’s most powerful finance ministries, treated himself and his bride to a two-week honeymoon at the resort destination of Maui, in the Hawaiian islands.

Near the end of their stay, he assured his new wife that they would travel to a different country each year to celebrate their special day, a promise he would never be able to keep.

Ten years later, Matthew, whose full name is not being disclosed due to the sensitivity of the issue, would find himself among tens of millions of incumbent and retired personnel in China’s vast state-funded organizations – including government agencies, state-owned enterprises, financial institutes, and leadership at universities and hospitals – who are being hindered from travelling abroad, even during their time off.

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While it was not uncommon a decade ago for Matthew and other Chinese officials like him to travel abroad for leisure, their counterparts in 2024 are under much tighter travel restrictions, where Hawaiian honeymoons are out of the question.

Matthew’s promotions over the past few years have not helped to satisfy his wanderlust, because in China, when officials like him ascend the ranks, restrictions on activities like travel become tighter.

The restrictions, which in some cases resemble outright bans, have come into sharper focus in the past decade as Beijing seeks to neutralise a widening range of risks, including preventing corrupt officials from fleeing abroad, thefts of state secrets or threats from foreign spies.

Just as Beijing sought to re-engage with the rest of the world after three years of strict border controls under Covid-19, restrictions on a large group of personnel employed in the state sector – who are highly educated, relatively affluent and central to public life – have continued to tighten.

Over the past year, from the central level down to county level, various institutes and agencies continue to roll out fresh rules to curtail private overseas trips, encompassing wider segments of the population and putting those already covered under even closer scrutiny.

But aside from impeding travel freedom, experts say the ongoing international travel restrictions will constrain China’s people-to-people exchanges with other countries, restrict information flows and stunt the perspectives of those who are responsible for carrying out the country’s policies on a day-to-day basis.

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said limiting such a large part of the population that is tasked with carrying out China’s policies will exact a toll in the long run.

Having the ability to travel abroad either for tourism or visiting friends, he said, “involves a matter of perspective, and sometimes broadening your horizons can lead you to learn things inadvertently”.

“It may come with a cost if you shut the door and isolate yourself.”

How is it done?

According to dozens of publicly available official regulations and multiple sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, groups covered by the travel restrictions include almost all of China’s civil servants, most employees in the state-owned finance sector and state-owned enterprises, and the leadership at universities and hospitals.

The first step is to put an employee’s passport in a mandatory lock up, which is subject to a complex and opaque chain of approval procedures that include requiring a person to report every single detail of their proposed trip. The measures mean in effect that a person must apply to “borrow” their own passport if they wish to travel abroad on their own.

In one example of an approval process, applicants at a particular central government agency were required to include invitation letters from relatives abroad if the purpose of the trip was to visit them.

Trips to Hong Kong and Macau are subject to similar restrictions, but tend to be treated with more leniency.

Beijing Daxing International Airport in Beijing. Sources told the Post that new travel measures mean that a person must apply to “borrow” their own passports if they wish to travel abroad on their own. Photo: Reuters

People who hold more senior positions in the system, or who have more access to confidential information, generally have tighter restrictions placed upon them. Officials who reach the rank of director general and above have even stricter constraints placed upon them permanently, even after their retirement.

Police and border control authorities are constantly updated on changes to the list to monitor unauthorised exits, according to the rules.

Sources told the Post that many people are too discouraged to even try to apply – since “theoretically” most annual quotas for foreign travel are less than 10 days.

An official based in a southeastern province told the Post that her application to attend her son’s graduation ceremony at Oxford University in the United Kingdom last summer was rejected on the grounds that “there was no precedence for approving such requests”. She was forced to cancel the trip even though she had purchased her plane tickets.

Her request to visit her son in Hong Kong, where he now works, was turned down this year.

The ultimate power to decide who travels and who does not lies with a person’s employer, some of which go further than others in curbing travel.

Decades after the first travel bans were set up, the restrictions are still being expanded by numerous state-affiliated players. This past spring, a prominent mixed-ownership media group in southern China began confiscating the passports of all of their journalists, according to people familiar with the matter.

In December, Wenzhou, an affluent coastal city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, rolled out rules that continued travel restrictions on officials at the vice director-level and above for at least two years after they retire.

In northwest Qinghai province, authorities in Mangya county pledged in April to ensure that more than 1,000 officials in the county – over 5 per cent of its population – “held zero” overseas travel documents in their possession.

In one residential district in the digital hub of Hangzhou, even government contractors at the community level, who are not civil servants, are subject to similar scrutiny when planning to travel overseas, according to a 2022 government notice.

There is no open information on the actual number of people in China who have had travel constraints placed upon them, but they belong to a group of 167 million people who work at non-private agencies in China’s urban areas, according to the China Statistics Yearbook for 2022 that was published by the National Bureau of Statistics.

China does not regularly publish information on the size of its civil service, but there were around 7 million civil servants nationwide at the end of 2015, according to a report issued by China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in 2016.

Beginning of the end

In a bid to stop senior officials from fleeing abroad with embezzled funds or defecting, Beijing rolled out its first vague foreign travel rule in 1999, which called on local governments to tighten the rules on private trips by officials above the director level. More travel restrictions would follow.

But the restrictions sped up significantly in 2014. Then, two years into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, the travel curbs had expanded to cover key state-owned financial institutions, as well as the leadership at state-owned companies and universities.

The same year, China’s Ministry of Public Security launched its sweeping Operation Fox Hunt – a campaign aimed at finding and repatriating economic fugitives, especially corrupt officials who had fled abroad.

A year later in 2015, Chinese police and the party’s personnel department jointly launched a campaign to crack down on violations of travel restrictions by officials.

Government agencies across the country have since imposed similar restrictions on almost all civil servants at the central level as well as various local levels, with plans to extend the rules to other state-affiliated sectors, sources said.

In a 2023 revision, the Communist Party’s disciplinary action regulations, a binding document that applies to all party members in the country, stipulated that it was a violation of party discipline to quietly change one’s itinerary for a private trip abroad after approval.

Overseas travel for personnel with access to confidential information was tightened at the national level in February, as Beijing passed the first amendment to China’s state secrets law in more than a decade.

Security insecurity

While the tightened travel restrictions were aimed at curbing corruption, they also reflected deep-seated insecurity in Beijing’s governance – putting up a barrier of ideological protection around the country as a way to manage political risks, according to Katja Drinhausen, head of the politics and society research programme at Berlin-based think tank the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics).

“There can be no other explanation besides that sense of insecurity that people may want to leave or may have something to say that the government does not want them to say, or hear abroad,” she said.

She said the rules “treat everyone who gets paid by the public system as a subject that needs to be regulated”.

The travel rules were “not a positive development” especially in politically charged times of great power competition. They further reduce opportunities for human connections and make it more likely that people stay in their information and ideological bubbles, Drinhausen said.

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said the expanded and tightened travel restrictions were part of Beijing’s overarching national security drive as leaders worried that external forces could impact political security, echoing recent efforts to crack down on foreign spies.

He said that while some rules, like restrictions on travel abroad for leisure, may have existed before, they were only loosely enforced, but are now taken more seriously amid perceived external danger.

As geopolitical tensions with Washington and its allies have intensified over the past two years, Beijing has ramped up its counter espionage rhetoric.

State security agencies have publicised many cases in which employees in the state sector, especially those with access to political and technological secrets, had been compromised by foreign agents while they were overseas.

The restrictions were tightened as more countries, such as Thailand, Kazakhstan and Singapore, granted short-term visa-free access to mainland Chinese tourists, with more countries doing so since the start of the year.

But the rule tightening seemed to be at odds with Beijing’s post-pandemic official narrative of improving people-to-people exchange with foreign countries, Drinhausen, from Merics, said.

“It was just in the 1990s that more people got passports, and now, as in so many other areas, [new measures are] turning the clock back when it comes to the freedoms and liberties of Chinese citizens,” she said.

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