Even those carrying valid passports are subject to the whims of the authorities. On Feb. 6, Wang Zhongxia, 28, a Chinese activist who had planned to meet the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was barred from boarding a Myanmar-bound flight from the southern city of Guangzhou. Four days earlier, Ilham Tohti, an academic and vocal advocate for China’s ethnic Uighurs, was prevented from leaving for the US.
Tohti, who was set to begin a yearlong fellowship at Indiana University, said he was interrogated at Beijing International Airport for nearly 12 hours by officers who refused to explain his detention.
Speaking from his apartment in the capital, Tohti says that Uighurs have long faced difficulties in obtaining passports but that the authorities have made it nearly impossible in recent years.
“We feel like second-class citizens in our own country,” he said.
For decades after the Communists came to power in 1949, most Chinese could only dream of traveling abroad; the handful who managed to leave often escaped by evading border guards and swimming across shark-infested waters to what was then British-ruled Hong Kong.
As China opened up to the outside world in the early 1980s, the government began providing passports and exit visas to graduate students who had acceptance letters from universities overseas.
All that changed in 1991, when Beijing issued new rules allowing Chinese to join group tours to “approved destinations” in Southeast Asia, and two years later, to the US and Europe. These days, members of China’s ethnic Han majority can generally obtain a passport in 15 days.
However, the rules are more arduous for Tibetans and Uighurs, who must win approvals from several layers of bureaucracy — including provincial authorities; the applicant’s hometown public security bureau; and for students, university administrators. Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer who has tried and failed to get a passport since 2005, says the denials are driven by fears that once abroad, minorities will speak out about China’s repressive ethnic policies or link up with exile groups.
“For the Han, getting a passport is as easy as buying a bus ticket,” she said. “But for Tibetans it’s harder than climbing to the sky.”
Since April last year, the authorities have been confiscating passports from Tibetans lucky enough to have them in the first place. According to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch, the police in Tibet are also required to interrogate returnees and determine whether they have broken a signed pledge not to engage in activities that “harm state security and interests” while outside the country.
The new procedures were introduced after thousands of Tibetans attended a religious gathering in India that included an appearance by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader whom Beijing considers a separatist.
Tibetan exiles say the restrictions also seek to limit information about the recent spate of self-immolations from reaching the outside world.
The frustrations of those affected by the tightened rules received a rare public airing after a 21-year-old Uighur college student blogged about her unsuccessful attempt to get a passport. The student, Atikem Rozi, said the repeated rejections had dashed her hopes to study abroad.