US-China Fast Track Channel makes it easier for businesspeople and their families to enter China, with caveats

·4-min read

An arrangement to reduce the waiting times for American businesspeople and their families to travel to China has come into effect, according to a major US business group in the country, materialising one of the goals set by the top leaders in November amid geopolitical tensions and Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy.

The US-China Fast Track Travel Channel Program was launched with immediate effect on Wednesday, according to a statement by the American Chamber of Commerce in China (AmCham China).

The programme helps cut the issuance time of PU letters – invitations issued by local Chinese authorities for travellers and their dependants – to between five and 10 business days. It had taken up to two months for eligible US firms. The chamber also said the chances of receiving such invitations are higher.

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The mechanism’s implementation comes on the heels of a virtual summit between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in mid-November, when Xi said China had agreed to upgrade the fast-track entry for American executives.

“It is believed that the move will further enhance economic and trade exchanges between China and the US, and boost the recovery of the two economies,” Xi was quoted by Xinhua as saying at the summit.

An AmCham survey in September found that restoring regular visa services and travel channels for business executives remained a top priority within the US business community.

However, tensions between the world’s two largest economies have become more heated since the presidents’ meeting, resulting in the reintroduction of Trump-era tit-for-tat sanctions and the absence of long-awaited senior-level trade talks when Beijing’s commitment to buy more American products under the phase one trade deal that expired on December 31.

Despite such a tense backdrop, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs still formally approved the fast-track programme on November 29, according to AmCham China.

The organisation said it joined hands with the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and the US-China Business Council, working with China’s central and key local governments to create the programme. The US-China fast-track support services will be exclusive for the member companies of those three American business groups.

The Chinese government has stressed that there are still strict Covid-19 travel restrictions in place, and that people should only travel if they have an ‘urgent need’ to do so

AmCham China

“The programme aims to provide a more efficient, predictable and reliable channel for essential US company executives, technical personnel and their dependants to enter China,” AmCham China said. “The programme will also ensure that businesspeople living in China who need to travel overseas for family or business reasons can return to China.”

Despite agreeing to simplify and expedite travel procedures for American companies, Beijing has shown no sign of pulling any punches in its zero-tolerance approach to the coronavirus ahead of both the Winter Olympics and the 20th Party’s National Congress, as evidenced by the recent lockdown and restrictions imposed in Xian city.

US travellers under the fast-track programme will still face quarantine in hotels designated by Chinese local authorities and will receive no special treatment, AmCham China said.

“The Chinese government has stressed that there are still strict Covid-19 travel restrictions in place, and that people should only travel if they have an ‘urgent need’ to do so,” the chamber said.

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Applicants for PU letters under the fast-track programme must provide a detailed explanation of why it is urgent and necessary that they travel to China, and the Chinese provincial and municipal governments still have the final say on whether the applicant meets the criteria.

Under the fast-track programme, US companies must apply for PU letters on behalf of individual employees, and travellers will have to independently apply for their visas, since “AmCham China is unable to play any role in this step”.

Family members can be included on a single PU letter application without requiring them to take the same flight to China, but eligibility is restricted to the main applicant’s spouse and children under 18 years old.

“The Beijing foreign affairs office has informed us that they will not allow any exceptions to this rule,” the chamber said.

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