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China drops coronavirus PCR test rule for inbound travelers

ASSOCIATED PRESS/ JAN. 8
                                Travelers wearing face masks with their luggage head to the immigration counter at the departure hall at Lok Ma Chau station in Hong Kong following the reopening of crossing border with mainland China in January. China said today that it would no longer require travelers entering the country to show a negative PCR test for the coronavirus.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS/ JAN. 8

Travelers wearing face masks with their luggage head to the immigration counter at the departure hall at Lok Ma Chau station in Hong Kong following the reopening of crossing border with mainland China in January. China said today that it would no longer require travelers entering the country to show a negative PCR test for the coronavirus.

BEIJING >> China said today that it would no longer require travelers entering the country to show a negative PCR test for the coronavirus, another step toward reopening after a long period of pandemic-era isolation.

But it was not clear whether testing requirements would be abolished altogether. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said only that, beginning Saturday, people going to China “can” take an antigen test to “replace” the previously mandated PCR test within 48 hours before boarding their flight.

Airlines would not check test results before boarding, the spokesperson, Mao Ning, added at a regularly scheduled news briefing. She did not say whether others, such as immigration officials, would check.

Notices by Chinese embassies overseas said that travelers arriving in China would still need to fill out a health declaration form, and that customs officials would conduct unspecified spot checks.

For three years, China imposed the world’s strictest coronavirus restrictions, implementing lockdowns and regular mass testing in the name of “zero COVID.” Then, the government abruptly abandoned those rules in December as the economy sagged, the virus spread widely and protests broke out across the country. Beijing has since declared that it is open to the world, and tried to woo foreign businesspeople and diplomats.

In practice, the reopening has been slowed, in part, by geopolitical tensions. Tourist visas were not reinstated until last month. International flights remain prohibitively expensive for many, often costing thousands of dollars. The United States and China have not yet lifted tit-for-tat caps that they imposed on routes between their two countries during the pandemic.

Testing requirements also became politicized. In January, as the coronavirus spread widely across China, several countries, including the United States, Japan and South Korea, announced mandatory tests for inbound travelers from China. China, in response, doubled down on its requirement for travelers from those countries — and also suspended the issuance of some visas for Japanese and South Koreans. (South Korea had also suspended some visas for Chinese travelers.)

The United States, Japan and South Korea no longer require any pre-departure tests for travelers arriving from China, but China had not changed its rule until Tuesday.

Travelers from other countries to China, meanwhile, had been allowed to take antigen tests.

One day before the rule change was announced, Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, had called for the abolition of the PCR test requirement, noting that it was costly and time-consuming for many travelers, and was motivated by a “predominance of geopolitical considerations.”

The rule “cannot be justified on public health grounds, and it is alienating the Chinese diaspora overseas, impeding China’s tourism industry, and hindering China’s post-COVID reopening efforts,” Huang wrote in a blog post on the New York-based council’s website.

China has insisted all along that its COVID measures were purely driven by science. In her announcement, Mao, the foreign ministry spokesperson, said China would “continue to scientifically optimize” its rules.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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