US embassy employees in hazmat gear are seen on an evacuation flight out of Beijing in February. Photo: Handout

More American dipomats and their families are planning to return to China in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but they will not be receiving a warm welcome from the country’s government when they arrive, nor is it clear when they will be able to travel.

When China’s Foreign Ministry was told of Washington’s plan to allow US consular officials to return to reopen its consulates across China, it said they could re-enter the country but they would have to cool their heels in quarantine for 14 days.

While Beijing agrees that US envoys and emissaries should retain their diplomatic immunity, China’s public health authority insists no one is immune to the highly contagious novel coronavirus, and that the nation must not expose itself to the risk of returning Americans infecting the local population.

It has been reported that at least two China-bound chartered flights that were to carry US diplomats to Shanghai and Tianjin have been delayed indefinitely, after Beijing insisted that anyone entering the country must self-isolate for two weeks and that diplomats would not be spared.

Washington has reportedly failed to reach an agreement with Beijing regarding how diplomats will be received, as Beijing has refused point-blank to relax its stringent health screening and quarantine rules that have been imposed on all arrivals since February.

Reuters quoted US ambassador to China Terry Branstad as saying that two such flights set to depart for Shanghai and Tianjin on July 8 and 10, respectively, had been put on hold and that no dates would be fixed unless the two countries can negotiate an arrangement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that Beijing would accord courteous and equitable treatment to all foreign representatives. He also revealed that his ministry had already “fast-tracked procedures” and helped a “plane load” of US diplomats to return to China at the end of May, without confirming if they had all been quarantined upon arrival.

On his Weibo account, Zhao also took a swipe at Washington’s call for China to be more hospitable, saying if US President Donald Trump wants Americans to feel more welcome elsewhere, he should “make America well again,” alluding to the alarming resurgence of the respiratory disease across the country.

Medical workers check health declaration forms before allowing passengers to disembark at Beijing’s Capital International Airport. Photo: People’s Daily

But other posts on Weibo noted that when the first batch of about 60 US diplomats flew into Tianjin at the end of May, they were immediately flanked by more than 150 paramedics in hazmat gear, who whisked them to a fully-enclosed facility on the tarmac to collect their saliva samples. These Americans then spent more hours than their flight to China waiting in a partitioned lounge before Chinese doctors could given them a clean slate and allow them to leave.

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily also revealed that Beijing had insisted all Americans must submit DNA samples for nucleic acid testing before entering China.

A Chinese diplomat who is posted to Mexico City told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity that his colleagues at the Foreign Ministry’s North America division said the US State Department had already deferred to Beijing’s demands that all diplomats be tested for the virus upon their arrival.

“Beijing has an upper hand in this tug of war as Washington pulled some 1,300 diplomats and their family members out of China in January and February, and most of them are still waiting to return, but Beijing mandated Chinese diplomats to remain in the US throughout these months when Covid-19 tore through many states. This means Washington has little ways to retaliate since not too many Chinese people will need to enter the US,” said the diplomat.

Washington’s embassy in Beijing is said to be grappling with a manpower shortage because more than 1,300 diplomats have not yet returned to China. Photo: Facebook

US diplomats already in China wonder if they will be “taken hostage” as a vengeful Beijing mulls countervailing measures after being on the receiving end of US tirades against its handling of Covid-19 outbreaks and the imposition of a controversial national security law on Hong Kong.

It is also said that Washington’s embassy in Beijing, whose personnel have long been stretched thin, is dispatching people to consulates in several cities across China to maintain essential services. The move comes after Beijing’s latest threat to impose visa restrictions on US politicians over the Hong Kong issue, which has further dimmed hopes of any immediate reinforcements from the US.

Washington’s consulate in Wuhan, Covid-19’s original epicenter, remains closed according to local media, but several US government employees have already returned to the city.

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