Guerrilla Diplomacy: The U.S. Government Sparks a Fury on Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter) about Visa Reciprocity

The U.S. Consular Mission is frustrated by its failure to convince China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reciprocally increase visa validity for visas for business visitors and tourists. Now, it appears that the U.S. is engaging in guerrilla diplomacy: encouraging Chinese netizens to speak out on the issue.

As background, the U.S. government negotiates with foreign governments to decide the validity period of visas on a reciprocal basis. Visas issued by China and the U.S. to each other’s business and tourist travelers are currently limited to one-year validity. The U.S. wants to issue longer visas (called B1/B2 visas) for business and tourist travelers. Citizens of other developing countries, such as India and Brazil, are currently issued B1/B2 visas valid for ten years. The U.S. Ambassador, Gary Locke, recently addressed this issue at senior levels to the Chinese Government, apparently without success.

Now, Beijing-based Caixin media reports that the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang has distributed to some Chinese, along with their 1-year visas, a notice that the Chinese government is to blame for the short validity period.

This guerrilla diplomacy appears to have succeeded in getting Chinese netizens’ attention. Caixin reports that a single post on Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) received 30,000 comments in a day before it was deleted by censors.

One commentor had noted that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has conveniently agreed with the U.S. to make diplomatic visas valid for 5 years. Another compared the Ministry’s visa restrictions with the hukouben system which limits Chinese citizens domestic migration.

It remains to be seen whether the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be sensitive to netizens’ opinions.

And, by the way, to reduce the free-wheeling nature of Sina Weibo and similar services, Chinese netizens will soon be required by the government to register accounts with their real names and national ID numbers.

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Chinese and American Officials Seek to Improve Visa Reciprocity

[Caixin] (Reporter: Ye Doudou) 2012-02-02 pm: An netizen named “Vivian” has posted to her Sina Weibo [microblog] an image of a notice from the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang, which she received together with her U.S. visa. It says:

The U.S. government seeks to grant Chinesse citizens visas with over 1 year validity. However, we have received no positive response from China to date. Due to the diplomatic principle of reciprocity, without reciprocation from China, the U.S. will not be able to unilaterally extend visa validity for China citizens. Therefore, we only can give you a visa valid for one year. We apologize for the inconvenience.

This posting [received] over 30,000 comments within a day. In the afternoon of Feb. 3, Vivian deleted the posting. But the Chinese public remains interested in issues related to U.S. visas.

A Caixin reporter interviewed Chinese and U.S. officials, and received formal responses from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Embassy.

The U.S. Embassy’s spokesman, Bao Riqiang, confirmed this notice is real and was temporarily issued to applicants by U.S. consulate in Shenyang.

According to U.S. Ambassador Locke, “We would like to issue U.S. visas valid for 5 years to Chinese citizens for purposes of travel to the U.S. for business, travel, or study. Based on the custom of reciprocity, we have notified the Chinese government that we are ready to grant 5-year visas if the Chinese government will do the same for U.S. citizens.”

Bao says the U.S. will continue seeking convenient ways for Chinese citizens to travel to the U.S. Continued cooperation between the two governments to accommodate international travel is in both nation’s interests.

An official from Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ department of consular affairs told Caixin that upon learned about the notice distributed by the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang the Chinese government complained to the U.S. Embassy. U.S. officials confirm that the Consulate has stopped distributing the notice.

An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that it’s simple for U.S. citizens to apply for China visas at present. In contrast, Chinese citizens applying for U.S. visas need to deal with complicated application documents, lengthy background checks, scheduling an appointment for an interview, getting fingerprinted, and a high percentage of visa denials. China pays close attention to visa reciprocity issues and communicates regularly with the U.S. regarding this matter. China would like to hold special discussions with the U.S. to solve problems and make travel convenient for both countries’ citizens.

According to U.S. officials, in fiscal year 2011 the U.S. consulates in China adjudicated over 1 million China U.S. visa applications, an inrease of 34% over the prior year. In the past 5 years, the number of visas issued to Chinese citizens has increased 124%.

On January 19, President Obama signed an executive order to promote travel and tourism to the U.S. He ordered the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security to simplify and accelerate visa application procedures. Public opinion is that the new plan will enable tens of thousands of Chinese to travel to the U.S. more easily.

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