China suspends visas for South Koreans in virus retaliation

BEIJING (AP) — China suspended issuing visas Tuesday for South Koreans to come to the country for tourism or business in apparent retaliation for COVID-19 testing requirements imposed by South Korea on Chinese travelers, according to a notice posted by the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. .

Japan’s Kyodo News service said the ban would also affect Japanese travelers. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said the government was aware of the report and was holding unofficial discussions with Chinese authorities about measures being considered by Beijing. It would be “regrettable” if restrictions are imposed, the official said, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.

The brief notice, published on the embassy WeChat account, said the ban will continue until South Korea lifts its “discriminatory measures on entrance by China” to the country.

No other details were given, although China has threatened to retaliate against countries that require travelers from China to show a negative test result for COVID-19 taken within the previous 48 hours. The announcement appeared to apply only to new applicants, and said nothing about South Koreans currently holding visas.

Withholding visas from Korean or Japanese businesspeople could delay the revival of fully fledged commercial activity and potential new investments following China’s abrupt lifting of anti-virus controls.

Business groups warned earlier that global companies were shifting investment plans away from China because it was too difficult for foreign executives to visit. A handful of foreign auto and other executives have visited China over the past three years, but companies have relied on Chinese employees or managers already in the country to run their operations.

A South Korean restaurant owner in Beijing said the announcement forced friends to postpone plans to visit China. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern that his business might be affected. He added that he is preparing to renew his own Chinese work visa and does not know whether that will be affected.

China has yet to say when it might resume issuing tourist visas on a large scale.

In a phone call with his South Korean counterpart, Park Jin, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang “expressed concern” about the measures taken by South Korea and said he “hopes that the South Korean side will uphold an objective and scientific attitude.”

China’s move appeared to be grounded in its demands that its citizens be treated the same as those of other countries. Around a dozen countries have followed the US in requiring negative tests for travelers coming from China, which has lifted most of its “zero-COVID” restrictions for the first time in three years but has also been experiencing a major outbreak since last month.

At a daily briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin defended China’s anti-pandemic measures, adding that “Regrettably, a handful of countries, in disregard of science and facts and the reality at home, have insisted on taking discriminatory entry restriction measures targeting China. China firmly rejected this and took reciprocal measures.”

Wang did not respond directly to questions about the suspension of visa issuance to South Koreans and Japanese, saying only that he had “made it very clear.”

The World Health Organization and several nations have accused China of withholding data on its outbreak. The testing requirements are aimed at identifying potential virus variants carried by travelers.

China’s ambassador to Australia said the response of those nations to China’s COVID-19 outbreak had not been proportionate or constructive.

Xiao Qian told reporters in Canberra that China had shifted its strategy late last year from preventing infections to preventing severe cases. He said countries should use a science-based response.

“Entry restrictions, if they’re targeted at China, they’re unnecessary,” the ambassador told reporters.

“If you look at some other countries in the world and their policies towards China, I mean, their responsible measures towards China (are) not constructive. It’s not based on science. It’s not proportionate,” he said.

The online notice at the embassy in Seoul did not say why China singled out South Korea for retaliation, although president and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s deeply nationalistic government has long resented Seoul’s alliance with the US

The once-cordial ties between South Korea and its biggest trading partner soured after China targeted businesses, sports teams and even K-pop groups to protest the deployment of an advanced US anti-missile system in South Korea. China fought on the side of North Korea in the 1950-1953 war and has remained a supporter of Pyongyang amid its missile launches and nuclear tests, and has opposed further sanctions against Kim Jong Un’s hardline communist regime.

China abruptly reversed its strict pandemic containment requirements last month in response to what it says was the changing nature of the outbreak. That came after three years of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing that prompted protests on the streets in Beijing and other major cities not seen in three decades.

The most optimistic forecasts say China’s business and consumer activity might revive as early as the first quarter of this year. But before that happens, entrepreneurs and families face a painful squeeze from a surge in virus cases that has left employers without enough healthy workers and kept wary customers away from shopping malls, restaurants, hair salons and gyms.

The abrupt decision by Xi’s government to end controls that shut down factories and kept millions of people at home will move up the timeline for economic recovery, but might disrupt activity this year as businesses scramble to adapt, forecasters say.

China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is bracing for a further spread into less developed areas with the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush, set to get underway in the coming days. While international flights are still reduced, authorities say they expect domestic rail and air journeys will double over the same period last year, bringing overall numbers close to those of the 2019 holiday period, before the pandemic hit.

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Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

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