Following September 11, 2001, America understandably moved to close loopholes in its immigration policies, in the name of security. But there were unintended consequences, mainly in delays for legitimate visa applicants - delays severe enough to threaten normal business and academic exchanges, and even diplomatic relations.
The rules have affected many countries, but the mainland was among the first to cry foul, on behalf of citizens who have had difficulty getting permission to study, work or attend conferences in the US. Beijing's protests have turned into retaliation. These steps included closing a call centre that made it easier for mainland applicants to book visa interview appointments. The centre will reopen today, which is a positive move: the tit-for-tat row is counter-productive.
The latest protest comes from a group of eight American trade associations, claiming almost US$31 billion in lost sales and indirect costs because their customers could not go to the US to pick up merchandise and employees were barred from going for training. While the calculation may only be advanced guesswork, the important point is that American businesses are feeling enough of a pinch to lodge an official complaint. It follows similar protests by prominent academics and associations in the US.
There are millions of dollars in foreign-student tuition fees at stake, but also concerns that crucial international ties are also being put in jeopardy - along with America's innovative edge, which depends to a large degree on drawing talent from abroad.
At the heart of it all is a new bureaucracy created by folding the Immigration and Naturalisation Service into the Homeland Security Department. Interviews were added for visa applicants and the vetting can now involve several agencies. What was once a straightforward affair has become, for some, a black hole of a process taking months and ending in what many claim to be arbitrary visa denials.
Where Beijing is concerned, it is difficult to argue that its citizens pose a higher terrorist threat than people from Australia, Britain or Canada, who do not face similar delays. There is obviously a need to screen out the real security risks, but the extreme caution towards certain countries - and the inefficient new system - are disproportionately blunt instruments. Now that American interest groups are claiming to be suffering financial and other losses as a result, perhaps there will be refinements.
Many have suggested putting more resources into the application screening process, as well as making approvals and renewals easier for those with established travel histories and patently legitimate agendas. On the Chinese side, lobbying for these changes would be far more productive - and less damaging to bilateral relations - than setting up similar bureaucratic roadblocks.