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Amid Coronavirus, the World Closes Its Doors to China: 'I Feel So Isolated'

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/18/2020 James T. Areddy
© Nicolas Asfouri/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

SHANGHAI—To celebrate Christmas one year, Jing Sun trekked to the North Pole to see reindeer. For another holiday, the Shenzhen native flew to Marrakesh, and she was recently in Cleveland for work. Los Angeles, New York and Barcelona were on her spring itinerary, while her maiden Australia voyage was penciled in.

Suddenly, the 29-year-old is grounded in Beijing.

Fearing the contagious coronavirus, the world has severed many links to China. More than 30 airlines have suspended China service, while a 78-nation matrix of rules and quarantines from the U.S. to Singapore have all but banned Chinese travelers from foreign soil. As of Tuesday, the virus as sickened more than 73,000 and killed 1,853, according to the World Health Organization.

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Watching the drawbridges go up is a jolt to China’s masses of travelers, including families on holiday, students studying abroad, globe-trotting lawyers, financiers and art dealers, such as Ms. Sun. Their livelihoods are impacted, and egos bruised.

The checks on its people undermine core Chinese government ambitions to position the country at the center of global diplomacy, commerce and culture. They threaten its export deals, convention business and efforts to position its modern airports as global transit points.

The international community’s defensive posture also stands in contrast to assurances from Beijing that the coronavirus is under control. The measures represent some of the few points of leverage many countries still have with China.

It is an abrupt snapback. All corners of the globe sought to capture the spending power of the 150 million international trips taken annually by Chinese. The U.S. and Japan offer 10-year visas, airlines advertise Mandarin speaking flight attendants and hotels equip rooms with teapots.

Ms. Sun, who handles international marketing for a leading Beijing gallery, Long March Space, had to cancel her mid-February attendance at Frieze Los Angeles, a major art fair. This week, despite 14 months of preparation, she won’t be in New York to host museum directors and millionaire collectors she invited to Soho to see works by artist Guo Fengyi, whose intricate drawings command prices up to $60,000.

Slideshow by photo services

“For us it’s devastating emotionally,” said Ms. Sun, admitting she has felt “confusion, sadness and fear.”

Off also is her Barcelona sojourn, and she now talks in the past tense about her plan to see Australia.

China’s government sparked the travel tangle in late January by abruptly locking down 60 million people in Wuhan, the central city where the outbreak was first detected and remains concentrated, and the surrounding province, Hubei. City and neighborhood blockades constrained movement elsewhere. It created a national gridlock smack in the middle of the Lunar New Year holiday, the world’s largest annual migration of people.

Soon, the U.S. and other countries advised their citizens to depart China, and dozens of airlines halted flights to the country, blaming cratered demand. China’s diplomats have tried, and mostly failed, to compel other nations to heed WHO advisories and relax the restrictions. “To avoid causing panic and impeding normal personnel exchanges and practical cooperation in various fields,” governments should not “overreact,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday.

Hong Kong private jet advisory Asian Sky Group said demand for charters in China is up as people try to avoid commercial carriers, even domestically, but for crews “there is significant reluctance to perform flights into China.” FlightAware.com data show just a handful of business jets departing Beijing since the global lockdown.

The 2003 outbreak in China of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, disrupted travel, too, but planes kept flying. It was an era when over twice as many visited China as traveled abroad.

The international mobility of China’s people skyrocketed along with its economy in the past two decades. Tourists flood Paris, Kyoto and New York. Power brokers for Chinese technology multinationals such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Huawei Technologies Co. do deals globally, and VIPs hop private jets to January’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland and France’s Cannes Film Festival each May. Thousands of Chinese flock to Nebraska each spring for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual meeting.

It’s a recent boom. Sealed borders characterized Mao Zedong’s China, and in the roughly three decades of his rule, only 210,000 passports were issued. When ordinary citizens started getting passports in the 1990s, most were single-use, and it wasn’t unusual for applicants to receive a visit from suspicious state security agents. As recently as the early 2000s, just seven Chinese out of 10,000 went abroad, and their primary “foreign” experience was a tour package to Hong Kong.

Today, over 180 million Chinese citizens have a passport. In comparison, some 146 million U.S. passports are in circulation.

Chinese tour groups serve about 160 nations. More than 660,000 Chinese study overseas, making education one of the biggest exports to China from the U.S. and Australia.

President Xi Jinping has made international connections a cornerstone policy called the Belt and Road Initiative. The president envisages infrastructure linking China with Europe along the ancient Silk Road and on sea routes first plied by a 15th-century mariner, Zheng He, who reached Africa and possibly California.

“The glory of the ancient silk routes shows that geographical distance is not insurmountable,” Mr. Xi proclaimed in 2017.

Eager to attract the spending of Chinese visitors, over 70 countries from Thailand to Serbia welcome them visa-free. Chinese citizens are now second among recipients of U.S. nonimmigrant visas, after Mexicans, with 1.1 million last year, and many of those permit multiple entries over a 10-year period. Nearly 80% of international visas issued by Japan go into Chinese passports, and more than 160 flights weekly connect China and Australia. Beijing Capital Airport is the world’s second busiest, after Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson.

For marketing executive Chen Hua, the welcome mat seemed to disappear during the two hours on Jan. 25 that she was airborne between Nanjing and Taiwan. Unbeknown to her group, the island’s government had banned visitors from China, so her two-family party of nine was handed a “Letter of Repatriation” upon arrival that ordered them out.

Their planned six days in Taiwan turned into 25 hours on airport benches waiting for seats on a return flight. “I did not expect the epidemic to develop so quickly,” Ms. Chen said.

On break from her masters program at the University of Sydney, She Yuxuan was visiting her grandmother in Wuhan last month when the city abruptly shut its borders. Her 23rd birthday passed without presents, and the lockdown prevented a short trip she planned to Japan and her return to Australia, where she has rented an apartment and owes school fees. “I feel so isolated because I’ve been staying home for a month,” said Ms. She. “When is this going to end?”

Steaming out of Mexico for Hawaii, Japan and China aboard a Semester at Sea voyage in early January, Yan Yuehao was looking forward to a Lunar New Year docking in his hometown, Shanghai, where he planned to dazzle his shipmates with its bright holiday lanterns.

Yet bad news about the coronavirus caught up to the college junior even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, including cancellation of the Shanghai stop. No one was sick among the 500 students on Mr. Yan’s vessel, so it kept sailing.

When the Semester at Sea ship diverted to a Vietnamese port last week, local authorities barred only Mr. Yan and two other mainland Chinese passengers from disembarking. Mr. Yan said he isn’t comfortable calling his treatment discrimination and said “there may be other factors.” The ship is now sailing for Africa.

The art dealer, Ms. Sun, doesn’t recall a time in her life when she didn’t have a passport. She experienced foreign cultures as a girl in the 1990s when her family joined a tour popular with novice travelers dubbed “xin-ma-tai,” referring to the Mandarin abbreviations for Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

By the time she was a teenager, Ms. Sun was flying alone, including to St. Louis, near where she spent two years of high school, followed by university programs in Boston, New York and London. Ms. Sun worked in museums and galleries along the way.

In 2015, the U.S. State Department stamped a multiple-entry visa in her red passport good through August 2025. “It definitely gives me a sense of security; if I want to go to the U.S., I can go to the U.S.,” she said.

Two years ago she and friends ventured to Finland and the North Pole to sit with Santa, pet his reindeer and ride snowmobiles. Later Ms. Sun flew to Morocco and called the landscapes, food and culture “just so exotic.”

Now based in Beijing, Ms. Sun attends art events world-wide. She scours airline timetables for overnight flights that offer a chance to sleep ahead of whirlwind schmoozes with collectors and celebrities. “You’re in heels and you have to look perfectly beautiful,” she said, joking the pressure is an “exhilarating nightmare.”

She connected with a British collector’s representative at a Swiss fair in 2017, flew to London to follow up, and has since sold the client over $4 million in artwork, including a large sculpture designed for the middle of a lake. “Face-to-face consulting means a lot,” Ms. Sun said.

While visiting her parents for the Lunar New Year in late January, Ms. Sun grew anxious the coronavirus might threaten her U.S. trip. “I just need my passport, I just need my passport,” she repeated to herself over dinner while plotting an immediate departure for Los Angeles.

“Then the announcement came,” she said, referring to new U.S. restrictions on visitors from China. She dispatched regrets to her artworld clients and contemplated what she can do online, but conceded “being there, and not being present makes a big difference.”

Write to James T. Areddy at james.areddy@wsj.com

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