By the latter half of the Trump administration, punditry was firmly centred on the development of a new Cold War. While some focus on a revisionist Russia, others see the primary conflict of the 21st century as between China and the United States. Concerning the US-China conflict, most of the attention has been paid to the basic geopolitical struggle between an established hegemon and a rising power. More recently, there has been a focus on how each offer competing systems of governance to the world: authoritarianism and democracy. Against this backdrop, an assertive China, ever-conscious of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), is beginning to resemble the Soviet Union in one important facet: the movement of people.
Winston Churchill’s metaphorical “iron curtain” illustrated a clear demarcation between the Western and Soviet spheres of influence. It also highlighted the near-impermeable border which separated Soviet citizens from the west. One of the hallmarks of the USSR was a system of internal and external passports. The former was a way for the government to control the internal movement of the population; changing residence for a period of “greater than one and one half months” was bureaucratically cumbersome and purposefully reduced mobility. International passports were difficult to obtain and served as decidedly political tools to restrict the activity of so-called “untrustworthies,” particularly those who might attempt to flee the USSR for political reasons. In a 1986 document, there were ten separate reasons for which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused exit authorization for personal travel for citizens of the USSR. These included such vague and all-encompassing reasons as “knowledge of state secrets” and “ensuring the protection of public order.” While the Soviet Union was not alone in using visas for political purposes – it was a common practice in the United States – the focus on the domestic population was uniquely Soviet.
Contemporary China also uses a system of internal and external passports. The hukou is a household registration system which governs everything from an individual’s ability to purchase a house, receive government benefits, and register a child in public school. Changing one’s hukou status, for example when moving from a rural community to a large city, is very difficult if not outright impossible. It is a tool with which the government can control the movement of people and thus the development of different urban and rural areas throughout the country. The hukou system is being augmented with an equally powerful social credit score, which can be used as a pretext to restrict the movement of citizens. In general, passports for international travel have been readily obtainable for most Chinese citizens. Yet, there have long been exceptions to this standard. Since 2012, almost no new passports have been issued to residents of the Tibetan Autonomous region. Recently, China has issued blanket recalls of passports in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Authorities have demanded that Uighurs return to China to renew expired passports; those who do have disappeared. Both policies are racist attempts to suppress ethnic minorities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and directly contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which calls for unrestricted domestic and international mobility.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to further restrictions in China’s passport system, even affecting those who previously benefited from easy access. In response to the Delta variant in Summer 2021, China banned passport renewals for those engaged in non-essential travel. While the government had previously restricted the travel of government critics, last summer’s restrictions represented a new wholesale attempt to restrict external freedom of movment. While ostensibly meant to support China’s zero-COVID policy, some have argued that the policies are meant to shield China from outside influences. Extraordinarily long quarantine periods in China and Hong Kong likely have a muting effect on international travel, regardless of the underlying rationale for these policies.
Why then, does a government that is loath to repeat the mistakes of the USSR, maintain policies that echo many of those from the Soviet system, particularly when it comes to the free-movement of people? Both the USSR and PRC are authoritarian regimes that rely upon strict social controls to retain power. China, for its part, has become an increasingly assertive geopolitical power and its president – Xi Jinping – has made Chinese economic and political primacy his singular focus. As part of this, a policy of Sinicization is underway in majority-minority regions of China and there is little expectation that the CCP will yield to international pressure to allow emigration as occurred in the Soviet Union. These passport policies, then, represent an effective tool with which the CCP can continue to maintain control over an economically empowered populace, while also shielding the Chinese political-economic system from outside threats. We are indeed witnessing some of the hallmarks of the twentieth century Cold War, but not always in the most obvious manner.