Beijing will soon offer foreign travelers a 72-hour visa-free entry to boost local tourism and further open up the city, vice mayor Ding Xiangyang revealed Saturday.
The new policy has triggered huge controversy within Chinese public opinion. While some applauded the move, others slammed the authorities for opening the door to more foreigners who may seek illegal immigration, residence and employment, against the background of several high-profile cases involving foreigners in China. There are also voices berating the authorities for granting foreigners "supra-national treatment" whereas Chinese citizens face cumbersome procedures when applying for visas to foreign countries.
Such criticisms are not completely unwarranted, but the problem is that they merely focus on potential risks and challenges to judge whether the policy should be adopted or not. Undoubtedly, all countries with visa waiver projects face risks in entry-exit management. In the wake of the 9/11 attack, the US suspended a visa-free transit policy that had been practiced since 1952.
However, providing more convenient visa services to seize a larger slice of the tourism pie is a common practice across the world. The US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Russia and more than a few European countries all grant flexible visa-free stays to many foreign tourists, encouraging them to explore local cities and building them into real hubs of international transportation.
For instance, Chinese people holding a visa issued by any member of the European Economic Community can enjoy a 30-day visa-free stay in South Korea. Singapore grants a 96-hour visa-free stay for Chinese travelers, and provides free shuttle bus, free subway pass, taxi guides and even free food coupons to invite foreigners to have a taste of local customs and flavors.
In comparison, China's rigid 24-hour visa-free transit policy, which was adopted back in the 1980s and had been tainted by a planned economy mentality stressing regulation, appears quite incompetent.
As more countries grow increasingly aware of the purchasing power of Chinese tourists and seek to grant them with more flexible visa services, China should catch up to this trend. Shanghai and its surrounding cities, as pioneers in this regard, have collected benefits from their 48-hour visa-free stay policy. Pearl River Delta cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen offer six-day visa-free entry. All these cities are seeking to launch more flexible visa-free transit projects. It is positive that Beijing joins these ranks.
China apparently has a lot more to do. It should strengthen regulations while bringing in more law-abiding foreigners. The two are not incompatible. China should also seek to sign mutual visa exemption treaties with more countries so as to facilitate public exchanges on both sides. Nevertheless, neither the difficulties in foreigner management nor the inequalities in visa services justify the argument that Chinese cities should not further open to foreigners.