My real travel experience to China and beyond
Published: Apr 26, 2023 09:37 PM
Tourists visit the Yongqing Fang historical alleyways in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province, Aug. 7, 2022. Tourist attractions that blend modernity with history are gaining popularity among visitors to Guangzhou, one of the top summer travel destinations in China.((Photo: Xinhua)

Tourists visit the Yongqing Fang historical alleyways in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, August 7, 2022. Photo: Xinhua

I was in China when travel restrictions were relaxed in December 2022, and between February and April 2023, I have made three business trips to China, visiting a number of Academies, Research Institutes, having meetings with my Chinese partners and participating in scientific conferences. I was therefore one of the foreigners with firsthand experience of life in China after the relaxation of travel restrictions.

For all the travels I made in 2023, I flew Emirates from Johannesburg to Dubai, and from Dubai to Guangzhou, my port of entry into China. Each time, all I needed to enter China was a negative result of PCR or nucleic acid test. No pre-departure self-isolation or any kind of observation was required. In the plane to Guangzhou, I saw a fully seated cabin with joyful passengers of different ages. The two-third seating capacity limit imposed during the pandemic had obviously been scrapped. Furthermore, I did not experience any form of quarantine or isolation once I landed in Guangzhou during my three visits to China in 2023.

I was in Beijing in December 2022 when the travel restrictions were relaxed; so I was able to travel to Zhejiang Province, Shandong Province, Hebei Province and Hainan Province to foster collaborations in science, technology and innovation between the African Academy of Sciences and Chinese Research Institutes, as well as Biotechnology Laboratories and Companies. I travelled between cities by a combination of high-speed trains and domestic flights. Everywhere I went, I saw the usual hustle and bustle of life in Chinese cities and malls. Restaurants were also always full, so much so that in Zhejiang we were told to wait for two hours before we could get an empty table to sit and eat. The roads were equally full of busy traffic. These were all clear signs of economic recovery after three years of COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions. There was evidently a feeling of celebration among ordinary Chinese people and a sense of boosted confidence in business recovery.

One of my trips coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year, a traditional holiday when people go back to their hometowns to have family reunions. According to Chinese state media, the nation saw 226 million domestic trips during the holiday period, a 74-percent surge from 2022, as well as a 12.2-percent increase in consumer spending. It is not surprising that the Chinese economy was already showing 5-percent growth in the first quarter.

Through conversations with my colleagues in China, I got to know the real situation regarding COVID-19. Although it is true that there was a surge in infections after China dropped its "zero-COVID" policy, the people I met had either fully recovered from it, or got over it without showing any symptoms. Most significantly, those that had symptoms, were allowed to self-isolate at their homes. Mandatory mass isolation was no longer in place. In front of some pharmacies, I also saw people making purchases of medicines in orderly manner without any panic. Although I understand that initially there had been some shortages of medicines, supply was quickly restored to abundance.

One of the leading Chinese scientists I was to meet is Professor Kang Le (Larry), a gentleman in his 80s. He is a friend and a distinguished academician of AAS, CAS and the US National Academy of Sciences. I was not able to meet him the first time because of COVID infection. However, he quickly recovered and we met in Beijing before I could return to Africa. Larry's experience was a true reflection of many Chinese senior citizens. I also had the privilege of attending the 107th birthday of a Chinese lady in Beijing, a true story of longevity in China!

As a foreigner, I always feel free and welcomed in China by my Chinese friends, academic colleagues, and even ordinary Chinese citizens I meet at malls and in restaurants. During my visits to China, I was treated with respect everywhere I went; and I truly enjoyed their friendly warmth and kind hospitality. Often, I saw many smiling faces in flights, trains and taxis. Clearly, I could feel what "reopening" really meant for the Chinese economy and the everyday lives of people. Negative nucleic acid test, which used to be a requirement for most Chinese to enter indoor public premises, is no longer needed. Shopping malls, restaurants, cinemas are thus welcoming customers back to their services with open arms. Schools and university educational systems are back to offline teaching with students and teachers enjoying their familiar lively campuses. Workers in the cities have started commuting in public transport, and metropolitan rush hours are regaining pace and momentum. Said and done, life has returned to normalcy in China.

What is extraordinary, though, is how China managed to achieve this in a relatively short period via a smooth transition. The Western media tends to emphasize the "abruptness" of China dropping its "zero-COVID" policy. In fact, it is a misrepresentation of what truly has been the case, as such a policy shift came with good timing and was planned and executed appropriately. The Chinese government places priority on peoples' wellbeing first when it comes to any kind of policy making. In response to the pandemic, China has in fact taken a holistic approach toward disease control and economic development, adapting response measures by keeping them science-based, targeted, and responsive to the evolving situation, to minimize the impact on peoples' daily lives and on overall economic and social development.

As witnessed in other parts of the world, the Omicron variant is more contagious but much less dangerous. Over the course of fighting the disease, China's capacity for treatment and testing has significantly improved. It is under such conditions that the Chinese leadership decided to refine its COVID response measures, shifting the focus from stemming infection to preventing severe cases. Such a move is not only science-based, timely and necessary, but also appropriate and responsible. It enabled the country to strike a balance between COVID control and economic and social development, restore normalcy to peoples' work and life, and better meet medical and healthcare needs.

China's reopening is also good news to the world. To take myself as an example, it was only because of such a policy shift that I could travel to China to continue my collaborations with Chinese scientists. Several countries placed ad hoc restrictions on Chinese visitors once China reopened its borders for outbound citizens. My experience has proved that these measures were totally unnecessary as the infected cases in China were no longer causing massive fatalities. It was an unwise decision based on bias rather than rational assessment.

For the global economy, China's reopening will have a major impact. The IMF has already adjusted its forecast of China's economic growth rate from 3 percent to 5.2 percent. In contrast to the recent incidence of vaccine nationalism, globalization has in its ideals an intertwined world that should work together for the common good of humanity. Instead of continuing to politicize COVID-related issues, world leaders should unite and work constructively towards growing a solid post-COVID global economy. The BRICS is a promising multilateral body pioneering that front. Its summit in South Africa later this year could bring optimism and some good news in the world stage.

The author is the president of The African Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the Academy of Science of South Africa. The article was first published on South Africa's news site Independent Online. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn