Visa-free travel may not seem like a big deal, but it throws a spanner in the works of the rhetoric about a “closed” and “bad-for-business” Beijing
Last week, Beijing announced that the citizens of six EU countries – Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal – will be allowed to visit China for a 15-day period visa-free, allowing them to bypass the cumbersome process of attaining a Chinese tourist visa.
The announcement comes about a week ahead of the upcoming China-EU summit, which will include a visit to Beijing by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, as well as European Council President Charles Michel.
Recently, von der Leyen has been engaging in increasingly hawkish rhetoric pertaining to Beijing, including making a number of complaints about what she refers to as “China’s unfair trade practices,” pushing for “de-risking,” and demanding more market access, and threatening levies over Chinese renewable energy goods. Beijing, on the other hand, has been critical of this attitude and has urged the EU to take a friendlier and more cooperative approach, touting the benefits of engagement.
So how does China respond to that situation? It announces an unprecedented visa-free scheme for select EU countries. Although that may seem like a minor gesture, it’s a big deal. A central complaint and criticism coming from the West towards China in recent years is that it has become increasingly “inconvenient” to travel to, and of course from 2020 to early 2023, it was practically impossible. This is because the Chinese state’s level of bureaucracy and regulations for incoming travelers has intensified, which makes getting a visa even for tourism a nightmarish process.
To receive a Chinese tourist visa, one must make a formal appointment with a designated office. If you do not live in a major city, that means you must have to travel to one. Depending on the country, these offices can be busy, meaning you cannot get an appointment on a whim. When making your appointment, you must already have every element of your trip pre-booked in terms of flights, accommodation, and dates, and then fill it all in on an extensive online form, which will ask about unusual and tedious details such as your family members’ occupations. You must also bring passport scans and photos, as well as the full passport itself, and submit it. If you get the appointment date wrong, it cannot be changed.
After paying for all that, after a few working days you can retrieve your passport with the visa taking up a page inside of it. A tourist visa will only ever last for a year, requiring you to repeat this process later on if you are a regular visitor to the country. Therefore, for China to suddenly turn around and say to some EU countries, “oh, you don’t need to do this anymore” that’s a huge deal. It is a very generous gesture, one extremely unlikely under any circumstances to be extended to any of the ‘Five Eyes’ countries. But behind it all there is a hidden, political motive: to thwart the EU “de-risking” of China.
If you’re a European businessman from one of these key countries, which coincidentally represent the bulk of the EU economy, your ability to enter China and do business has improved remarkably. It’s a friendly sign, it’s helpful, so do you think those German, Dutch and French executives who are being told to reduce their presence in China are going to be more inclined to listen to von der Leyen and her ilk when they say de-risk? Why would they? Accessing the Chinese market just got that little bit easier, and therefore the de-risk agenda is thwarted. After all, business groups are opposed to such agendas in the first place. The German car industry is never, ever going to give up on the Chinese market.
In addition to this, the move also undercuts the popular Western narrative that China is “closing” to the world, that Xi Jinping is bad for business, and that the mood is “unfriendly.” On the strategic level, Beijing is determined to keep the EU on side as much as possible, a feat which has become increasingly difficult given everything the US is throwing at it to undermine the relationship. China, however, understands the importance of making tactical concessions in the pursuit of long-term gains, and playing the visa-free travel card is a smart move. It’s not likely to sway skeptical EU leaders, but it is likely to ferment the conditions to continue to expand EU-China business ties whether they like it or not.