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China has suspended issuing short-term visas for South Korean and Japanese nationals, its embassies in Seoul and Tokyo said on Tuesday, in an apparent retaliation against COVID-19 restrictions imposed on Chinese travellers in the wake of a spike in coronavirus cases in the country.

Seoul and Tokyo joined more than a dozen countries that have imposed new travel curbs on arrivals from China over concerns about rising infections after Beijing changed its stringent “Zero COVID” policy last month following widespread protests.

Beijing says the restrictions on its nationals are discriminatory and not based on science.

“Chinese embassies and consulates in Korea will suspend the issuance of short-term visas for Korean citizens,” Beijing’s embassy in Seoul said, adding that the measures would be “adjusted again in line with South Korea’s removal of the discriminatory entry restrictions on China”.

Beijing’s embassy in Tokyo announced in a brief statement late on Tuesday that the issuing of visas for Japanese citizens would also be halted, giving no specific reason or indication of how long the measure would last.

The move came soon after Japan toughened COVID-19 rules for travellers coming directly from China, requiring a negative result for a PCR test taken less than 72 hours before departure, as well as a negative test on arrival in Japan.

Seoul introduced a host of measures for visitors from China last month, including visa restrictions and testing requirements.

Hospitals in China have been overwhelmed by cases since Beijing began opening up after nationwide protests fuelled by growing frustration at three years of harsh controls that failed to eliminate the virus.

But the virus is spreading among its 1.4 billion people, and worries over the scale and impact of its outbreak have prompted Japan, South Korea, France, the United States and other countries to require negative COVID-19 tests from travellers from China.

“China seems to be using South Korea and Japan to send a message to other countries, which have imposed restrictions on Chinese travellers in hopes that they will roll [them] back and it also wants these nations that are considering restrictions to think twice about it,” said Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing.

China currently issues no tourist visas and requires a negative COVID-19 test for all arrivals.

South Korea is also capping flights from China, and travellers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau have to test negative before departure – measures Seoul’s foreign minister has defended as being “in accordance with scientific evidence”.

Mainland visitors are also being tested on arrival and are required to quarantine for a week if they test positive, authorities have said.

China has stopped publishing daily infection tallies despite the facing worst outbreak in three years. It has been reporting five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn, figures that have been disputed by the World Health Organization and are inconsistent with funeral providers reporting surging demand.

The WHO has called the precautionary measures “understandable” in light of the lack of information and urged Beijing to share more data on genetic sequencing, as well as figures on hospitalisations, deaths and vaccinations.

Some governments have raised concerns about Beijing’s data transparency as international experts predict at least one million deaths in China this year. Washington has also raised concerns about future potential mutations of the virus.

China dismisses criticism over its data as politically-motivated attempts to smear its “success” in handling the pandemic and said any future mutations are likely to be more infectious but less harmful.

“Since the outbreak, China has had an open and transparent attitude,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

But as infections surge across China’s vast rural hinterland, many, including elderly victims, are not getting tested.

Al Jazeera’s Yu said the move is going to impact all parties involved, given that China is South Korea and Japan’s biggest trading partner.

“There are plenty of Japanese and South Korean businesses with operations here and they will no longer be able to send their business people here to tend to those in person,” she said. “This will also impact China’s foreign economic bottom line. But Beijing says it has the right to impose countermeasures on these countries.”



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