As China recovers, it's far from normal for European business

As China recovers slowly from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the rest of the world has gone into near lockdown with the death toll continuing to rise as the number of confirmed cases catapulted past the one million mark.


To limit the risk of infections from abroad, Chinese cities mandated a 14-day quarantine for all international arrivals. Although initially, some were permitted to self-quarantine at home, more and more cities began mandating centralised quarantine in designated hotels, for which travellers paid  out of pocket for two weeks’ housing and meals. Though strict and sometimes unpleasant, this process has proven effective in reducing the infection rate in China.


Despite the efficacy of these measures, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently went several unnecessary steps further and barred foreigners from entering China as of 28th March. Aside from a handful of vague exceptions, these measures cover all non-PRC-citizens, including those who hold valid visas or residency permits. This ‘temporary’ ban for which no timeline has been given will profoundly impact European businesses and families in China, thus holding back the return to normal that so many are desperate for.


However, foreigners make up only a tiny percentage of incoming travellers, with 90 per cent of imported COVID-19 cases having been identified as coming from Chinese nationals returning from abroad. These Chinese nationals undergo the standard quarantine process when they return home, yet the legal residents who have made a home in China are deprived of this choice due to an arbitrary and unscientific decision.


This whole ordeal was further escalated when China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly advised even foreign diplomats to not return until mid-May. This will undoubtedly impact the operations of consulates and embassies, and hamstring their capacity for serving their citizens living in China.


For the many innovative job-creating and tax-paying European enterprises in China, foreign staff stranded abroad have been left in the dark about when they can return. While remote work is feasible for certain types of business, not everything can be managed over digitally. In some cases, companies’ legal representatives are now marooned abroad, unable to sign important documents, use the company chop or fulfil a variety of essential duties that other employees cannot legally perform. This is doubly true for many European SMEs, where missing even a single members of staff indefinitely can spell disaster for the company.


Meanwhile, the legal residents that managed to be on the right side of the border when it closed have faced discrimination on the basis of their nationality. Reports have detailed foreigners being turned away from gyms, restaurants and cafes, harassed on the street or purposely avoided on the subway.


Some in Europe shamefully treated their fellow Europeans of Chinese and Asian descent and legal residents from China just as poorly. However, we saw subsequent waves of support coming from government leaders, businesses, and civil society in Europe. This has, frankly, been lacking in China, where the government and political leaders have remained all but silent on the issue.  


China’s central and local governments should strongly condemn this behaviour. As the Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai recently wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, “[t]his is not the time for finger-pointing. This is a time for solidarity, collaboration and mutual support.” This sentiment is much needed, but these words also need to translate into action in the Chinese government, both to ensure that legal residents can return and undergo quarantine and to publicly condemn the so far rare acts of bigotry against foreigners in China before they become commonplace.


With only a trickle of new cases of the virus reported daily, all apparently imported cases from returnees, China seems to have done a remarkable job in slowing its spread and allowing the country to rebuild after an exceptionally difficult two months. By reopening the border to legal residents and diplomats, China will not only provide lessons to the world on virus suppression, but also show how to maintain fair treatment of its legal residents that are eager to return to their adopted home. 

Mr Carlo Diego D’ Andrea is the Vice President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China and Chairman of the Shanghai Chapter