Business groups optimistic despite China's pushback on air-travel test requirements

OTTAWA — The Chinese government is unhappy that Canada and other countries are creating new COVID-19 restrictions for people flying in from China, but business groups say the policy won't affect trade.

"If you've been living in China, you've been having PCR tests on an almost daily basis for many, many months," said Sarah Kutulakos, head of the Canada China Business Council.

Under its COVID-Zero policy, China has had some of the strictest pandemic rules on the planet, including mandatory isolation for anyone coming from abroad and almost daily testing for citizens.

Beijing lifted many of these policies last month following widespread protests. A wave of COVID-19 infections has followed that American officials worry could lead to a more severe variant.

Starting Thursday, Canada will require air travellers from China to have a recent negative test, similar to policies brought in by the U.S. and some European countries.

At a Tuesday press conference in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said some rules are based on politics instead of science, but she did not reference Canada specifically.

"Some of these measures are disproportionate and simply unacceptable," reads an official English transcript of Mao's remarks.

"We firmly reject using COVID measures for political purposes and will take corresponding measures in response."

China already requires a negative COVID-19 test for all travellers. Canada's policy only applies to people arriving on flights originating from mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau.

Infectious disease specialists have argued that the tests are not helpful for preventing COVID-19 spread when the coronavirus is already widely circulating and provinces have suspended virtually all restrictions.

"COVID response measures need to be science-based and proportionate. They should not be used for political manipulation, there should not be discriminatory measures against certain countries," Mao said, adding that variants can emerge anywhere.

Canada is also testing wastewater from select aircraft arriving in Vancouver to screen for variants through a pilot project.

Kutulakos, whose group includes larger corporations, argued that Canada's new requirements aren't onerous. She said the main news in Canada-China travel is Beijing lifting its mandatory quarantine for arriving travellers.

Before the change, one member of the business council had tested positive for COVID-19 six weeks after an infection, she said, with some people shedding inactive remnants of the virus long after recovery.

And one of Kutulakos's staff tested negative on some tests and positive on others, leading to an all-clear to fly to China but a mandatory hospital stay once he arrived.

"It puts you in, essentially, purgatory. That's why there has been very little travel back and forth," she said.

Most flights between China and Canada were suspended during the pandemic, but Kutulakos said Beijing's loosening of the rules has people wanting to cross the Pacific again.

"There has all of a sudden been a huge uptick in people wanting to travel. And so tickets are very expensive, maybe five (times) what they were pre-pandemic."

The China Canada Business Association, which represents many small- and medium-sized enterprises, has noticed the same trends.

"We hope that the latest measure will not hamper ... trade and goodwill between our nations," said Ron Horton, the group's vice-president, adding that it's relatively easy to get a COVID-19 test before leaving China.

Many in corporate Canada are now reapplying for multi-entry visas that either expired or that Beijing cancelled during the pandemic, Kutulakos said, and some plan to visit once the current COVID-19 wave abates in China — though until then, "it's going to be a pretty rough couple of months."

The changes come amid significant strain in the relationship between the two countries.

The Canadian federal government has deemed China a threat to the international rules-based order and is seeking deeper ties with other Asian nations. Beijing says that rhetoric is causing tension in the region.

Still, the representatives of both groups say they are buoyed by the progress toward more-normal travel.

"There may be some political frictions, but quite often business can break through that, or transcend the political aspect," Horton said.

Kutulakos added: "There's no way relations can get better if people don't meet face to face."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press