Flush with cash and eager to see the world, millions of middle-class Chinese spent the 10-day Lunar New Year holiday that ended on Monday last week in places like Paris, Bangkok and New York. Last year, Chinese made a record 83 million trips abroad, 20 percent more than in 2011 and a fivefold increase from a decade earlier.
However, Sun Wenguang (孫文廣), a retired economics professor from Shandong Province, was not among those venturing overseas. And not by choice. An author whose books offer a critical assessment of Chinese Communist Party rule, Sun, 79, has been repeatedly denied a passport without explanation.
“I’d love to visit my daughter in America and my 90-year-old brother in Taiwan, but the authorities have other ideas,” he said. “I feel like I’m living in a cage.”
Sun is among the legions of Chinese who have been barred from traveling abroad by a government that is increasingly using the decisions on passports as a cudgel against perceived enemies — or as a carrot to encourage academics whose writings have at times strayed from the party line to return to the fold.
“It’s just another way to punish people they don’t like,” said Wu Zeheng, a government critic and Buddhist spiritual leader from Guangdong Province whose failed entreaties to obtain a passport have prevented him from accepting at least a dozen speaking invitations in Europe and North America.
China’s passport restrictions extend to low-level military personnel, Tibetan monks and even the security personnel who process passport applications.
“I feel so jealous when I see all my friends taking vacations in Singapore or Thailand, but the only way I could join them is to quit my job,” a 28-year-old police detective in Beijing said.
Lawyers and human rights advocates say the number of those affected has soared in recent years, with Tibetans and Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking minority from China’s far west, increasingly ineligible for overseas fellowships, speaking engagements or the organized sightseeing groups that have ferried planeloads of Chinese to foreign capitals.
Although the government does not release figures on those who have been denied passports, human rights groups suggest that at least 14 million people — mostly those officially categorized as ethnic Uighurs and Tibetans — have been directly affected by the restrictions as have hundreds of religious and political dissidents. A representative of China’s Exit-Entry Administration of the Public Security Bureau declined to discuss the nation’s passport policies.
The seemingly arbitrary restrictions, not unlike those long employed by the former Soviet Union, also affect overseas Chinese who had grown accustomed to frequent visits home. Scores of Chinese expatriates have been denied new passports by Chinese embassies when their old ones expire, while others say they are simply turned away after landing in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. Returnees whose names show up on a blacklist are escorted by border control officers to the next outbound flight. Even if seldom given explanations for their expulsions, many of those turned away suspect it is punishment for their anti-government activism abroad.
“Compared to other forms of political persecution, the denial of the right to return home seems like a small evil,” said Hu Ping (胡平), the editor of a pro-democracy journal in New York who has not seen his family in years. “But it’s a blatant violation of human rights.”