Tea Leaf Nation
‘The Chinese Passport Demonstrates Its True Worth’
Withdrawing nationals from earthquake-wracked Kathmandu has become a show of Chinese state power.
HONG KONG — On April 25, a massive magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal near its capital Kathmandu, with the death toll topping 4,000. Thousands of Chinese tourists were among those who survived, and the vast majority anxious to flee would soon come to know the value, and the limits, of the passports they bore as they sought to return home.
Over the past few years, Nepal has become a popular tourist destination for China’s growing middle class; visitors pose with pigeons in the historical Dunbar Square in Kathmandu and trek in the foothills of the Himalayas to gaze at the snowy peaks. According to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, there were about 4,000 Chinese tourists in Nepal at the time of the earthquake. Almost all of them, in the chaotic aftermath, were anxious to get home. “Passengers can board [Chinese planes in Kathmandu] with or without a plane ticket as long as they have Chinese passports,” according to an April 26 Xinhua editorial, which concluded, “In a time of need, the Chinese passport demonstrates its true worth.”
But in their haste to extract maximum propaganda value, it appears Xinhua editors neglected to check all the facts. A Chinese passport did not, in fact, automatically entitle the holder to a free ticket out of Nepal. Several travelers reported on social media that they were stranded in Kathmandu with little access to Chinese embassy workers and had to pay exorbitant prices for plane tickets out of Nepal. Soon, the Chinese foreign ministry also publicly disputed Xinhua’s story, and Xinhua later deleted it. (On April 27, the county’s three major carriers – Air China, China Eastern Airlines, and China Southern Airlines – denied any price-gouging, blaming unscrupulous middlemen.)
Even if the details of the story were incorrect, Chinese state media has continued to emphasize China’s role in jetting its citizens out of Nepal as a sign of the country’s ascent as a world power. China Central Television (CCTV) interviewed a passenger named Jiang Naxin, who said Kathmandu’s airport security personnel told a crowd of anxious travelers that “only Chinese were allowed inside” the terminal because only planes from Chinese airlines had arrived. (At least one other passenger confirmed the account via social media platform Weibo.) Another unnamed passenger, fresh off a chartered flight from Kathmandu, told the CCTV crew that he was “extremely happy” to see the Air China plane, and “really feels like our motherland has changed.”
By “changed,” he likely meant that China has become more willing to project its power, particularly in terms of helping citizens abroad. For years, many Chinese social media users have pooh-poohed the Chinese passport, as an increasing number of middle class tourists feel inconvenienced by the lack of visa-free arrangements with countries that are popular tourist destinations.
That may be changing. In a viral post shared on WeChat, a popular mobile messaging app, in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, an anonymous author wrote that “the Chinese passport may not be able to take you to a lot of places, but it can take you home from anywhere.” On April 27, the Weibo account of state paper People’s Daily waxed poetic about “Chinese planes arriving first above ruined buildings [in Nepal] and Chinese naval ships keeping their promise in the midst of gunfire [in Yemen].” The Chinese navy evacuated about 600 Chinese citizens, mostly workers with state-owned companies, from war-torn Yemen in early April 2015. It was the second such large-scale operation after China extracted more than 38,000 workers from Libya in 2011. The Chinese media played up the fact, with some glee, that the U.S. government refused to extract its own citizens from Yemen.