Border Breakthrough: China’s Cancellation of ‘Black Code’ Prompts Mobility and Economic Uncertainty

The General Administration of Customs of China officially announced the cancellation of the “black code” on November 1, 2023. The implementation of the policy means that Hong Kong residents no longer need to fill out the “Health Declaration Card” also known as the “black code” QR code, which was used for scanning at customs to entry and exit between Hong Kong and Mainland China.

People lining up at the Shenzhen Bay Port to cross the border during the first weekend after the cancelation of Health Declaration. Credit to: GONG Shuyao Janice

With the easing of the pandemic, Hong Kong and the Mainland China fully opened their borders in early February of this year, immediately attracting a large number of Hong Kong residents to head north. However, before November 1, they still needed to fill in the “Entry-Exit Health Declaration Card” in advance to declare that they were not exhibiting symptoms such as a cold, cough, and fever that could be indicative of a COVID-19 infection, and to report their travel history over the last 14 days. This measure has been in place for nearly four years since the start of the pandemic.

Source: General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China

Data from the Hong Kong Immigration Department shows that the trend of Hong Kong residents heading north is still strong. During October, there were about 5,500,000 outbound person-times of Hong Kong residents through various land ports, and 5,700,000 inbound person-times. On the first weekend after the black code was cancelled, the number of people heading north through various ports reached nearly 873,000.

Earlier, Ms Starry Lee Wai-king, representative of the National People’s Congress in Hong Kong and chairperson of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) , said in interviews with RTHK that Hong Kong has been striving to persuade mainland customs to cancel the black code as soon as possible. Now that it has been officially cancelled, she expressed her gratitude on Facebook to the mainland Customs and related agencies for their attention to the opinions of Hong Kong residents.

At present, the scanning machines at some ports have been shut down. Although the gates are still not withdrawn, there are no longer any notices reminding people to declare, and all gates are now fully open. As for when the scanning machines will be removed, the staff at Shenzhen Bay Port did not provide a clear and direct response. When passing health quarantine station, only a few staffs are responsible for temperature checks for inbound and outbound personnel, or dealing with emergencies or helping passengers who voluntarily declare that they are unwell. Many residents who need to travel frequently between Shenzhen and Hong Kong believe that the cancellation of the black code has brought more convenience, especially for the elderly.

People passing through without scanning the ‘black code’ at the Shenzhen Bay Port on November 4, even though the scanning machines are still in place. Credit to: GONG Shuyao Janice

Having retired at the age of 72, Mr. Lam often travels to Shenzhen to visit his daughter. In the past, the complexities of mobile phone operations posed a significant challenge for him.  Every time he needed to declare, he should resort to the help of the staff or other people. “Once, I declared in advance on my mobile phone before setting off in the morning, but the machine showed that the black code had expired when I was clearing customs, and I had to set the black code on the spot again, which will cost me  a lot of time.” He continued, “Particularly during peak holiday periods, the staff are always too busy to help us. Once we start scanning, we know we will be stuck here. But I hope this situation will no longer happen in the future.”

“The entire process on Wednesday morning took just more than 5 minutes, definitely under 10. It might take slightly longer on weekends when the crowd is larger than usual.” Ms Luo was among the first residents to cross the border after the abolition of the black code on Wednesday and shared her experience about having a smoother journey.

While some residents expressed frustration over the sluggishness in cancelling the black code policy, due to its redundancy in the face of a normalized pandemic situation. Ms Chung goes to Shenzhen for the weekend frequently, and she described the policy as a cumbersome formality. While understanding that the existence of the black code was originally due to health and infectious disease needs, she said that since everyone’s lives have returned to normal, these policies originally intended for epidemic prevention should have been cancelled earlier.

Will the cancellation of the black code really bring benefits to Hong Kong’s economy?

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Previously, Starry Lee and other political figures pointed out that the mainland and Hong Kong are strengthening cross-border flow to mutually drive consumption and investment, promoting the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay. However, the “black code” will only create more burdens at the customs as the flow of people between China and Hong Kong continues to increase, especially for foreign businesses. By shortening customs clearance time, cross-border travel can be facilitated and the economic development of the two places would not be hindered.

Travelers between Mainland China and Hong Kong filling the departure and arrival hall at Shenzhen Bay Port on November 4,2023. Credit to: GONG Shuyao Janice
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However, Assistant Professor Zhang Peng from School of Management and Economics in Chinese University of Hong Kong(Shenzhen) offers a counter perspective. He believes that the cancellation of the black code might even pose a threat to certain industries, particularly those impacted by the surge of Hong Kong residents heading north. He said the food industry is especially affected because people usually head north during weekends and do not return until Sunday evening, meaning that business performance on these days is even lower than during the weekdays.

Featured Image: The Custom of People’s Republic of China. Credit to GONG Shuyao Janice

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