China has stopped issuing new passports to its citizens and has imposed entry and exit controls on its population, citing the recent surge in the Delta variant of COVID-19, but commentators say the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using the pandemic as a pretext to curb freedom of movement.
Chinese nationals living in mainland China have told RFA in recent months that the authorities have gradually stopped issuing new passports and exit visas -- a police-approved travel permit that adds another layer to a slew of hurdles Chinese nationals must clear in order to be allowed to leave.
The Chinese Entry and Exit Bureau recently confirmed publicly that the rules are in place, saying exit permits will only be issued for "essential" travel.
"We will be implementing a strict approvals systems with no permits for non-emergency or non-essential trips out of China, to ensure public safety during the pandemic," spokesman Chen Jie told a news conference on July 30.
Some Chinese nationals living in the United States have been stranded in China after they combined a trip home with plans to renew their soon-to-expire passports at the same time, U.S.-based businessman Zhang Shengqi told RFA.
"My friend ... found he couldn't get [a passport] after he got back, and his wife [in the U.S.] just gave birth to a child," Zhang said, suggesting that even returning to one's place of work and family wasn't being regarded as "essential."
"My friend even has contacts in the area, but even they can't get it done for him; nobody is issuing them, so he is stuck there and can't get out," he said. "It's pretty inhumane when families can't be together."
Chinese nationals have also drawn a blank when trying to apply to renew passports at the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles, Zhang said.
"There are a few people here whose passports have now expired, yet [the consulate] are saying that none of these applications are urgent," he said. "They are refusing to renew them."
"They are planning to hire a lawyer and sue the LA consulate," he said.
Pandemic used as a pretext
Current affairs commentator Fang Yuan said the pandemic probably isn't the main reason for the new restrictions, however.
"I think we can look at these new entry and exit restrictions in the context of the crackdown on Chinese companies listing in the U.S.," Fang said. "These choices are being made in line with the [Sino-U.S.] trade war."
"These actions may cause some harm to [Chinese interests], but they are also hurting the other side," he said.
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said Chinese nationals should be granted the freedom to enter and leave China at will, under the constitution, Chinese passport law, and immigration legislation.
"I think the Chinese Entry-Exit Bureau's actions are in violation of laws protecting the basic rights of citizens," Teng told RFA. "The pandemic is being used as a pretext."
"They want to ... clamp down on the movement of their citizens and prevent Western ideological imports from influencing them," he said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Qiao Long and Emily Chan.