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Passports put Chinese on tour

From CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Jaime Flor Cruz

Shanghai residents line up for travel permit applications to Hong Kong.
Shanghai residents line up for travel permit applications to Hong Kong.

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BEIJING, China -- Chinese passports, once the preserve of a privileged elite, are now available to ordinary citizens of the world's most populous country.

Once restricted to travel within their own borders, Chinese are now queuing up to apply for passports and the chance to visit the rest of the world.

The government's decision to relax travel restrictions marks a dramatic change from the 1980s, when passports were limited to the few who went on official trips and those who were well connected.

"From now on, Chinese citizens can apply for passports (as well as) travel permits to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. We are shortening passport application procedures," said Beijing police official Zhang Xiuying.

For one elderly couple, the relaxation of passport regulations has presented an opportunity to visit their daughter in Australia.

"It's so much easier now to apply for a passport," Zhu Zhiquan, having received his passport in record time.

Also among the applicants lining up and getting pictures taken inside police office building in Beijing, was a 28-year-old student planning to travel to Canada further his education.

"With more contacts with the outside world, we can learn good experiences and advanced technology--and foreigners will know more about China," he said, while asking to remain unnamed.

The new procedures are being implemented in 34 big and medium-sized cities nationwide, mostly in the economically-developed areas on China's eastern seaboard. The government's target is to have 100 cities involved by the end of the year.

But not everyone can get a passport.

"According to Chinese regulations, people like convicted criminals, people charged in courts, and people who might endanger national security overseas may not apply," Zhang Yindi, from the Ministry of Public Security, told CNN.

Many Chinese dissidents in the past have been denied passports for political reasons, but it was unclear if the new rules would make it any easier for them to get one.

Some retirees looking forward to a vacation in Hong Kong and Macau told CNN there were still some complaints with the new system.

"We have never traveled out of China. Now that China has opened up, we want to have a look," said Ma Shuling.

"(But) it limits our total travel time to seven days, and we want to spend more time looking around. Seven days is too short," she said.

Getting a passport may now be easier for Chinese applicants but getting one does not guarantee them entry visas to the countries they want to visit. Immigration officials of some countries often deny visas because they worry the Chinese may not return home.

In 2002, Beijing police alone approved 230,000 applications to travel out of China for personal (or non-official) reasons, 88 times more compared to 20 years ago.

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