THE BLOG
11/13/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Trouble on the Road

Tiancheng Zheng discusses the obstacles Chinese citizens face while applying for visas and traveling abroad.

When Zhang Qian returned to the imperial court of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BCE, he became the first Chinese diplomat to venture into the "Western Regions," today's Central Asia. While at court, he entertained his audience with tales of grandeur, adventures, and smooth travels.

Today, however, the passport of a well-traveled Chinese citizen - decorated with its endless colorful visa stickers and customs stamps - tells quite a different story; there's now a certain unwillingness to admit Chinese citizens at international borders.

How does the Chinese passport fare compared to the passports of other countries? According to the Henley & Partners (H&P) Visa Restrictions Index, 2014, an indicator of the number of countries a citizen can visit without a visa, China is ranked 83rd, tied with Comoros and Jordan whose citizens can only visit 45 countries freely. The top tier includes Finland, Germany, Sweden, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom, the citizens of which can travel to 174 countries without a visa. In total, 170 countries in the world have more popular passports than China. This condition places China in the lowest quarter in terms of travel freedom, a pathetic position compared the country's economic might and global influence.

We could view the same issue by looking at the specific countries Chinese citizens can visit without a visa. According to a report from the Bureau of Exit and Entry of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, among the territories that admit Chinese citizens without the requirement of a visa are: the Maldives, Jeju Island of South Korea, Saipan Island in the West Pacific Ocean, China's Asian neighbors and African countries with close ties to Beijing.

Last summer, I visited Britain and France. Both countries require visas for Chinese citizens. The inconvenience started with the planning. Travel plans must be made well in advance in case the visa application is rejected. Although the embassies recommend that air tickets be reserved but not paid for, ticket prices usually skyrocket closer to the travel date. Therefore, visa application causes uncertainty in planning, which in turn leads to huge financial costs.

The inconvenience went well beyond the planning stage, though. The real art of applying for a visa lies in the preparation of supporting documents. Usually, meticulous planning helps. For a Schengen visa, for instance, the applicant must provide a confirmed round-trip air ticket and the confirmation of accommodation.

Some countries have vague guidelines for the requisite documents. Last summer, when I renewed my student visa at the American consulate in Shanghai, I was carrying my transcript, my enrollment confirmation, my parents' income statements, tax documents, bank account statements, and even proof that we owned the house we live in. In the end, the interviewer dismissed me with two cavalier questions and approved the visa without looking at any of the documents I prepared.

Apart from procuring supporting documents, applicants have to confront other types of nuisance. Hefty application fees, the subjective moods of interviewer, and absurdly long waiting times can all add to the woes of Chinese travelers.

Yinan (Eva) Song, a seasoned traveller and a recent Yale graduate who double-majored in Political Science and Art, has developed a creative response. Song worked on a graphic design project on her own Chinese passport, which led to a series of inquiries that eventually culminated in the production of an interactive and informative website that explores the status of the Chinese passport, in general.

In her passport, Eva "collected" an assortment of visa stickers. She juxtaposed the immigration stamps and zoomed in on certain pages to create a kaleidoscopic visual effect. Through her project, Eva asked herself: why do Chinese citizens have to endure inconveniences when they travel? Why is the Chinese passport so frowned upon across international borders?

One reason that so few countries are on the Chinese citizens' visa-free travel list, according to Eva Song, is the lack of mutual commitment on the part of the authorities involved. If one country imposes visa restrictions on the citizens of another country, the latter finds no incentive to do anything different. Regrettably, the Chinese government requires visitors from most major developed countries to apply for visas. Understandably, these foreign governments impose the same restrictions on Chinese travellers.

Illegal immigration is another area of concern. According to a retired French immigration officer, one third of the illegal immigrants in France entered the French territory legally but overstayed their stipulated time. Keeping in mind the widespread domestic dissatisfaction with food security, environmental degradation, and health care, one can only find more incentives for Chinese citizens who wish for a higher standard of living to move abroad. Unsurprisingly, immigration officers take heed by implementing extra steps to evaluate their visa applications.

Differing political ideologies factors in, as well. According to Eva Song, countries are much more reluctant to grant visa-free entry to citizens coming from a nation with a different ideological background. While citizens in democratic countries enjoy relatively friendly entry policies, there are much more restrictions on citizens trying to cross ideological boundaries, not just physical ones.

Perceived socioeconomic status is yet another possible contributing component. Generally, people welcome citizens of countries who are able to bring consumption, investment, and wealth. Looking at the GDP per capita data of China, it is not hard to conclude that, viewed as a monolithic entity, China does not offer a great deal of purchasing power.

Additionally, the stereotype of rowdy Chinese tourists who disregard social norms wherever they go probably exacerbates their image. Spitting, poor manners, and vandalism are typical bad habits Chinese tourists are accused of exhibiting when traveling abroad.

Yet, the winds are changing. A decade of economic growth has delivered rising incomes, which make travelling for leisure more common for Chinese people, and promises even more. According to the Economist, one third of Chinese tourists now organize their own itineraries and increasingly allocate more time for shopping. The UN World Tourism Organization also ranks the total spending of Chinese tourists the highest among tourists of all nationalities. Rich Chinese buyers have earned their reputation by splurging money on foreign luxury goods which they regard as status symbols for status. Walking in Galeries Lafayette, a duty free shopping center in Paris, it is not surprising to see long lines of Chinese tourists in front of boutiques of famous brands.

So will luxury consumption pave the way for a worldwide review of the Chinese visa policy? There are promising signs. The American government has already started to simplify its visa application process. Now, it is possible for some applicants to have an online interview. Moreover, approved visas can now be picked up from multiple bank branches of the applicants' choosing, rather than from just the embassy or consulate. Across the Atlantic, the British government is now well aware of the adverse impact of its restrictive, costly, and time-consuming visa process compared to the more generous Schengen visa offered by its EU neighbors. As a result, the Chinese tourists visiting Britain last year were only one ninth of those visiting France, although those who did stay in Britain stayed longer. Given China's recent strong economic performance and the burgeoning Chinese demand for foreign goods, we may soon witness a period of fundamental change in the status of the Chinese passport.

Despite the optimistic signs, this process will invariably take time. First, it takes years to foster trust, shatter stereotypes, and revamp a preexisting system. Economics do not make up the entire story. The nexus of macroeconomic, political, and cultural factors that have bedeviled the Chinese passport will likely continue to remain a major roadblock in realizing an egalitarian vision of cross-border travel.

For now, one can only wonder how liberating it must have felt for Zhang Qian to travel freely across the Western world.

_________

Tiancheng Zheng is a sophomore at Princeton University. Contact him at tzheng@princeton.edu.

This article also appears in China Hands.