When I cast my mind back to early January 2020, the world seems a much simpler and smaller place. I had just returned to China after a holiday in Finland, one of many trips I was fortunate to have take taken since the previous January. "It's amazing how we can jet around the world like this," I pondered upon seeing the all-too familiar sight of Customs at Beijing Capital Airport. "What if it isn't possible to travel so easily one day?" I asked my partner, as if having a premonition of what would soon ensue. "Don't be so pessimistic!" she retorted.
Almost two years since the COVID-19 pandemic grounded flights across the world, cross-border movement has started to pick up. China, however, remains effectively closed to much of the global population. The country has some of the strictest border controls, with very few visas (and even passports) issued since early 2020. Foreign residents have been unable to enter China for long periods of the pandemic. That was until March 2021, when Beijing permitted us to leave and re-enter the country, but only if we had been inoculated with a Chinese-produced vaccine.
But while on paper it seemed that I would be able to return to China, I didn't know any vaccinated foreign residents who had successfully done so. This was unsurprising given how new the policy was, and how few people have been travelling generally. "Are you sure can make it back?" people asked. Indeed, there had been many stories of people being refused passage to China, and rumours abounded of foreigners having their residence permits cancelled at the border, or being denied passage to China without reason.
Planning, budgeting, and assessing the risks
It was on this uncertain basis that I started planning what would be my first trip home for 18 months. Preparations for the trip started way back in the spring. (That's one reason for my lack of blog posts since then!) I intended to stay in England for around a month. But after factoring in the weeks of isolation and quarantine required in both directions, I quickly realised that a one-month holiday would eventually morph into an absence of at least two months from my work and life in China.
I also had to consider the costs. Airfares to China had ballooned to prices several times more expensive than before the pandemic; that's if you could even a find a flight on your desired dates. There are now so few flights coming into China, with most routes capped at one return trip per week or suspended entirely. Added to this were the expense of quarantine back in China and the many COVID tests I would have to pay for over the course of my journey.
Many will wonder if it was worth the cost and hassle. Things could easily have gone wrong, if I had gotten COVID or if China's entry policies were tightened, say. Both scenarios seemed possible when I flew into Heathrow during the middle of July. Just a day before I returned to England, the UK's daily COVID cases had exceeded 50,000, largely attributed to the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
Everyone's situation and risk threshold are different. For some, it may be that a trip home is not so urgent, or that the expense and prospect of quarantine time is simply too much to bear. In my case, I knew that I needed to attend a family wedding, no matter what the potential risks. I am fortunate to have a very supportive employer that has allowed me to work remotely. And, in the end, everything has somehow worked out and I've made it back to China as planned. So how on earth did I do it?
My greatest aid: crowdsourced intelligence
For every lucky returnee like me, there are many others for whom it hasn't been so easy. Many who left China during the spring of 2020 are stranded, their residence permits having expired. Chat groups have emerged containing hundreds if not thousands of stranded China expats, discussing possible ways to get back in, and providing some solidarity. There are also groups dedicated to specific transit routes that one must navigate if flying from the UK, and even groups about doing quarantine in Shanghai and other cities.
These groups have been invaluable to me while navigating my own route to and from the UK. There is a great absence of clear information from the Chinese authorities, something I suspect is a deliberate strategy by China, aimed at discouraging cross-border movement. It is in this informational void that online chat groups have cropped up, becoming an impressive source of crowdsourced intelligence, such as guides to obtaining re-entry into China, tips on testing and flight routes, checklists of what to pack for quarantine in China, and even spreadsheets detailing hotels used as quarantines facilities.
The mechanics of being granted passage to China
China currently requires all inbound passengers to something called a Health Declaration Certificate ("HDC"). Under pressure from the Chinese authorities, airline staff are charged with checking and cross-checking that passengers have a green HDC, and will not issue boarding passes without it. The process of applying for the HDC is a fairly simple matter of uploading various travel documents – as well as test results and proof of vaccination – to an app. But the challenge lies in making sure all of those documents have been obtained and prepared in advance and in the correct way.
In my case, I had to apply for two HDCs: one before I left London, and one while in transit in Helsinki. Direct flights between the UK and China have been suspended since November last year, but it is possible to take a connecting flight to China via one of several European airports that offer direct flights to China and have the required in-terminal testing capacity. This meant I had to undergo two rounds of pre-flight tests in London and Helsinki, each round comprising both nucleic acid and IgM antibody. Since I left the UK, China has announced that a third pre-flight test is now required seven days before departure!
The transit and testing experience in Helsinki provided a sort of warm-up for my return to China. Medical staff at the makeshift testing clinic were mostly of Chinese ethnicity and even spoke to me in Mandarin. Loudspeaker announcements before our flight were sometimes given only in Chinese, not English or even Finnish. This reflected the passenger profile of the flight, which I estimate was over 95% Chinese nationals, mostly students returning home after completing their courses in the UK. At times, this gave me the feeling that I was gate-crashing a Chinese school outing, albeit a slightly unconventional one!
Since getting back to China, I'm pleased to report that things have gone smoothly so far, and I have not yet been subjected to any testing or observation that some foreign arrivals have reported. I'll recount my quarantine experience in depth in another post. For now, I'll simply say that spending time with loved ones this summer was worth every penny spent, every nasal swab and every minute of solitary confinement!