BEIJING – China said Tuesday it will 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 isolation during the pandemic.
But it’s unclear whether the testing requirements will be removed entirely. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said only that, starting Saturday, people going to China “can” take an antigen test to “replace” the previously mandatory PCR test within 48 hours before boarding the their flight.
Airlines will not check test results before boarding, the spokesman, Mao Ning, said. added in a regularly scheduled news briefing. He did not say whether others, such as immigration officials, would check.
Notices by Chinese embassies abroad said travelers arriving in China still need to fill out a health declaration form, and customs officials will conduct unspecified site inspections.
For three years, China has imposed the world’s strictest coronavirus restrictions, requiring lockdowns and regular mass testing in the name of “zero Covid.” The government then abruptly abandoned those policies in December as the economy tanked, the virus spread widely and protests erupted across the country. Since then Beijing has declared that it is open to the world, and has tried to court foreign businessmen and diplomats.
In practice, the reopening has been slowed, in part, by geopolitical tensions. Tourist visas are not returned until last month. International flights remain very expensive for many, often costing thousands of dollars. The United States and China have yet to lift the tit-for-tat caps they imposed on routes between their two countries during the pandemic.
Testing requirements have also become politicized. In January, as the coronavirus spread widely across China, several countries, including the United States, Japan and South Korea, announced mandatory tests for incoming travelers from China. China, in response, doubled on its need for travelers from those countries — and suspended the issuance of some visas for Japanese and South Koreans. (South Korea has also suspended some visas for Chinese travelers.)
The United States, Japan and South Korea no longer require any predeparture tests for travelers arriving from China, but China did not change its rule until Tuesday.
Travelers from other countries to China, meanwhile, were allowed to take antigen tests.
A day before the rule change was announced, Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, called for the repeal of the PCR test requirement, noting that it would be costly and time-consuming for many traveler, and motivated by a “predominance of geopolitical considerations.”
The rule “cannot be justified on public health grounds, and it alienates the Chinese diaspora abroad, hinders China’s tourism industry, and hinders China’s post-Covid reopening efforts,” Mr. Huang wrote in a blog post on the New York-based council’s website.
China insists to everyone that its measures on Covid are driven solely by science. In her announcement, Ms. Mao, the foreign ministry spokesman, said China was “continuing to scientifically optimize” its policies.