HONG KONG (Reuters) - Britain’s top official in Hong Kong on Tuesday expressed concern about new pre-Olympics visa curbs on foreigners entering mainland China from Hong Kong, which have sparked widespread criticism from businessmen.
Hong Kong, which returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, enjoys a high degree of autonomy and serves as a major gateway to the mainland. Visas are normally obtained quickly for businessmen.
But Beijing tightened entry rules last week because of increased security just months before the Games begin.
“Clearly there’s a degree of concern,” said Andrew Seaton, Britain’s new consul-general to Hong Kong. “The British Chamber I know has been very concerned about the real impact it has on the ability of their membership to pursue business in China.”
Citizens of 33 countries, including India, Pakistan, Iraq and Nepal, have been barred from applying for China visas in Hong Kong and will now have to apply from their home countries.
The rules don’t apply to foreigners resident in Hong Kong.
A number of other foreign business chambers, including those from Australia and the United States, have also voiced criticism, saying businessmen aren’t able to obtain multiple-entry visas and have been stymied by extra red tape, requiring proof of hotel vouchers and a return air-ticket before visas are issued.
Conflicting information on the new rules from China’s Foreign Ministry and travel agents has added to the confusion.
The British Embassy in Beijing said in an open letter on Tuesday that it had “received an assurance from the Chinese Foreign Ministry that the Chinese will continue to issue 12-month multiple entry visas to British businessmen.”
Yet the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said it was receiving daily complaints of rejected visa applications.
“There’s a real disconnection between the announcements and the actuality,” said Chamber president Richard Vuylsteke.
Seaton, the consul-general said Britain was now seeking clearer answers from Chinese authorities in Beijing and London.
“As far as I know we do not yet have that precise clarification of the new rules that we are seeking,” Seaton told reporters on the first day of his job as the new consul-general.
China, whose Communist government values stability above all else, is taking no chances with the August Olympics and has been carrying out regular security and anti-terror drills.
The journey of the Olympic torch around the world has been disrupted by protests, largely over Chinese rule in Tibet, where a wave of anti-government unrest erupted in March.
Over the weekend, protests broke out in several Chinese cities, demanding a boycott of French goods and targeted French supermarket chain Carrefour, as Chinese vented indignation towards recent anti-China demonstrations in Paris.
Seaton said he wasn’t overly concerned.
“As long as those protests ... stay peaceful, then it seems to me that that those protests won’t pose any problems,” he said.
Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie and David Fogarty