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Open much? A comparative study of freedom of movement within the Schengen zone and the Greater Bay Area

Catarina Vila Nova

Both the much-promoted Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area (hereafter: GBA) and the Schengen zone boast as one of their core principles facilitated mobility within their respective geographic areas. However, in neither case does this come without caveats. How do these two areas perform in comparison with each other? Can the respective governments truly speak of increased mobility and free flow of people if not all individuals get to enjoy these benefits equally?

Created in 1985, the Schengen Agreement boasts 26 European countries who decided to abolish their internal borders, “for the free and unrestricted movement of people”. In order to enjoy this “free and unrestricted movement of people”, nationals of countries not belonging to the Schengen area must apply for a Schengen visa, which is a “short-stay visa that allows a person to travel to any members of the Schengen zone, for stays up to 90 days for tourism or business purposes”. Thus, “it enables its holder to enter, freely travel within, and leave the Schengen zone from any of the Schengen member countries. There are no border controls within the Schengen zone”.

The principle of open borders within the Schengen zone was put to the test twice recently: during the “refugee crisis” of 2015, when EU states sought to keep refugees at bay even when they had already crossed the external border of the EU; and when EU states shut their internal borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, while it may be true that once an individual crosses the external border, they are free to move around without restrictions provided they hold a visa, the first major challenge is getting in. The list of reasons why an EU member-state would refuse to issue a Schengen visa is long and countries have not shied away from rejecting applicants. Even in 2020, when visa applications drastically decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the rejection rate jumped to more than 13% (most people were rejected because they had no travel documents nor visa/residence permits).

The EU’s longer-term practice of strict external border controls, e.g. through so-called “pushbacks” in the Mediterranean Sea, has reached the headlines again twice recently: when the bloc did not hesitate in shutting down its borders to southern African nations in the wake of a new variant of the coronavirus, and when Poland, a EU member-state, kept refugees at bay during the Belarus-Poland standoff. Both instances were criticized heavily: the EU seemed to engage in “doublespeak”, where it highlights its values in terms of the freedom of movement, as well as its adherence to international law and human rights, at the same time as political rhetoric and practice diverge, and who gets to enjoy these rights and freedoms is heavily policed and differentiated along numerous rules and exceptions (some more, some less explicit in practice – consider the different treatment of Ukrainian refugees as compared to those from other seemingly “less desirable” geographies).

To rival the Schengen area’s scope and ambition if not its political ideas, the GBA was laid out in 2017 by China’s President Xi Jinping. The GBA is as ambitious as it is “vague”. The “Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” is filled with promising proposals, from developing an international innovation and technology hub, to building a globally competitive modern industrial system and improving ecological conservation. However, reference to “Hong Kong and Macao residents” keeps popping up in the 62 pages of the document, raising the question: who will get to benefit from this ostentatious plan? Hong Kong and Macao belong to China but are so-called special administrative regions and governed by the principle “one country, two systems” with their own currencies, judicial systems, and legal frameworks. There is the explicit mention that only “Chinese nationals” (rather than residents) will benefit from easier access to positions at state enterprises/agencies and public service positions in the mainland. Even though easier, faster, and more convenient travelling between the cities that form the Greater Bay Area is one of the highlights of the plan, will everyone living there be able to benefit equally? It does not appear so.

Tax concessions for Hong Kong and Macao citizens working in mainland cities of the GBA, encouraging people to purchase properties in mainland cities and granting their children equal education there as well as “major infrastructure projects”, such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, constitute examples of “policies [that] have created tangible benefits for Hong Kong businesses and residents”, claims Maggie Lee, KPMG China’s Hong Kong partner. “The transport network has become so convenient that it is even possible to take morning tea in Guangzhou, do business in Hong Kong in the afternoon, and enjoy [the] night view in Macau”, China Daily proudly announced.

However, back in 2018, Bian Tao, vice-director-general of the Liaison Office of the Central Government in Macao, explained that free movement of people within the GBA would only apply to Chinese nationals. As he clarified, the issue does not lay with travelling, “because there is no problem with that. Nowadays, Hong Kong and Macao residents can travel to any place in China”. Rather, the concept of freedom of movement, as understood by the Central Government, relates to living and working in mainland China. But even in this restricted understanding of freedom of movement, understood only as living and working in mainland China, but not traveling for tourism purposes, only Chinese nationals will get to benefit from it, because, as Bian Tao explained, “every country has a different treatment for nationals and foreigners”.

The Central Government has laid out who the beneficiaries of the GBA will be in the “Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” as well as in press conferences by referring only to Hong Kong and Macao residents who are Chinese nationals. If an individual that is required to have a Schengen visa to travel freely within the EU gets handed this “golden ticket”, they know that, once they are in, they are free to circulate across countries regardless of their nationality. The same cannot be said of the GBA. It prevents those residents of Macao and Hong Kong that are not Chinese nationals to enjoy the full benefits of this plan.

Where the EU “double-speaks”, and the Schengen area member states struggle to align professed values and actual border policies, China is more transparent in its discriminatory policies. The GBA is meant to benefit Chinese nationals. In so doing, the GBA becomes part of intra-Chinese politics around the recognition of Hong Kong and Macao autonomy and their connection to mainland China. Ultimately, the professed freedom and unrestricted movement of people should be taken with a grain of salt in both cases. When put to the test, both regimes cannot uphold the principles they advocate, and should do better in carefully and transparently justifying their exclusion and discrimination policies.