Foreign students lose hope of return amid COVID outbreaks

With universities shut down and transport curtailed in a number of cities, the outlook has darkened for international students shut out of China since March 2020 who were hoping to return.

The spread of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant in China, particularly from the northern port city of Tianjin to central Henan province has led to a hardline government zero-COVID policy and new city lockdowns to curb the virus.

Many hoped border restrictions would be eased by February as Beijing holds the Winter Olympic Games beginning on 4 February.

An initial batch of international students, those enrolled at two Sino-US joint venture universities – Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu province close to Shanghai, and New York University Shanghai – who have been stranded abroad since January 2020, had been told in November to prepare to return but wait for the go-ahead.

But those hopes and the hopes of all international students are now receding, with major outbreaks in a number of cities, including Xian, Shenzhen near the border with Hong Kong, the eastern port city of Ningbo, and the major port city of Tianjin just 80 miles from Beijing.

Around 20 million people in China are said to be in some form of lockdown this week, according to reports, while international flights in and out of China have been restricted.

Tianjin, in particular, is under huge pressure to prevent the spread of infection to Beijing close to the start of the Winter Olympics.

Students from nine universities in and around Beijing will be among the 200,000 volunteers from the capital serving at the games. They have not been allowed to leave Beijing since 1 January. Some 95 universities around the country with Olympics volunteers have been conducting in-person training launched by the Beijing Organising Committee for the games.

Tianjin authorities have ordered residents not to leave the city unless absolutely necessary. Those who want to leave must present a negative coronavirus test taken within 48 hours and obtain approval from their employer, local government offices or university administrations. Universities and colleges have ‘sealed off’ their campuses and classes have been shifted online, according to state media reports.

In Tianjin mass testing has found schools and universities to be a focus of infection.

A university student who returned on 28 December from Tianjin to Anyang city – now the centre of the main outbreak in Henan province – is believed to have brought back the strain as a handful of Omicron cases were reported on 10 January in Anyang, 300 miles from Tianjin. It rose to 65 confirmed cases by this week. Mass testing was being carried out in several cities in Henan province.

In a statement on Sunday, the Beijing Centre for Disease Prevention and Control advised Beijing residents not to visit Tianjin and those in Tianjin to refrain from travelling to the capital. It also asked commuters between the two cities – 30 minutes apart by high-speed rail – to work from home. By Sunday evening, train tickets from Tianjin to Beijing could no longer be purchased online.

Xian food shortages

In the city of Xian, capital of Shaanxi province, a full lockdown since 22 December has confined all 13 million city residents to their homes and students to campuses. Changan University in Xian, where 135,000 candidates were taking the postgraduate entrance exam at the beginning of January, was declared a high-risk area.

Liu Guozhong, Communist Party chief of Shaanxi province, said mass testing was crucial. “It is really urgent to strengthen the prevention and control work in local universities and colleges to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on campuses,” he said at a work conference at the end of December.

Xian is seeing some of the harshest restrictions in the country since the January 2020 lockdown of more than 11 million people in the city of Wuhan where COVID-19 was first detected at the end of 2019. The sudden lockdown in Xian has affected food supplies and food shortages in the city have caused a public outcry.

International student Ketrin (one name) from Indonesia at X’ian Jiaotong University said in an interview with state-run broadcaster CGTN this week that the university was in lockdown, but students were allowed to go to the university canteen. “All classes are online and offline examinations will be postponed,” she said.

In response to reports of food shortages, she said there was a ‘minimarket’ on campus. “The minimarket owners tell us when they have restocked their goods and they also take orders of what we want,” she added.

For local students the lockdowns come just before the Lunar New Year break in February when they normally head home. Now many face the prospect of spending the holiday locked in on campus. Students in cities unaffected by the strain, including in Shanghai, are being told to avoid travelling home.

Foreign students lose heart

Foreign students locked out of China since January 2020 are beginning to lose heart, with the latest lockdowns pushing any possibility of returning to China even further into the distance.

A group called China International Student Union (CISU) formed in early 2021 has been a focal point of information for foreign students locked out of China with its #takeusbacktochina campaign. CISU says it has attracted more than 13,000 international students who would otherwise be studying on campus at 200 universities in China.

CISU said on 11 January via Twitter: “Travelling to China seems like a dimming prospect for international students who are adamant to return after two years of ineffective online lessons, especially those who are barred from lab work and practicum needed to complete their degrees.”

Disappointment has been palpable in social media posts. “A few days ago my uni was so positive about our coming to [China] next semester, but now they gave us the schedule of online classes,” said one frustrated medical student via Twitter on 12 January, adding: “Every student now should put plans to transfer, no one should wait [until] after March.”

“It seems the news we heard before is all just lies,” according to the tweet, referring to Chinese government official statements suggesting that foreign students would be allowed to return by February or March.

Any easing of visa restrictions while China registered almost no COVID-19 cases in some months last year only benefited returning business executives, teachers and academics, students from South Korea – which had around 50,000 students in China – and students at the branch campus New York University Shanghai.

The vast majority of international students, numbering over 400,000, have been given no indication when they can return.

Students said they were beginning to give up hope with so many false dawns and so many announcements by universities, embassies and Chinese officials that they would ‘soon’ be allowed to return.

Russian students revealed in an online survey carried out by CISU that some of them were alerted by universities via email that international students would reportedly be able to come in batches, but no clear dates were stated. The students were told that they would have to pay for a mandatory 21-day quarantine period upon entry into China.

China repeatedly says students will be ‘prioritised’

Cambodian and Indonesian students had reportedly been notified by the Chinese embassy in both countries, hinting at a return this year. This followed remarks in November 2021 by Deng Xijun, Chinese ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), that students from the region “would be prioritised” when China’s borders reopen.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said in December 2021 during a meeting in China with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that China could allow international students to return, with priority for final-year students who require on-campus facilities to complete lab work and research as part of their degree.

Abdullah told local media that Malaysia was among the “top priority countries in China’s pilot project for return of international students to China”. No timetable was given.

Chinese embassy officials in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand made similar statements about “prioritising” students from those countries when borders reopen.

The latest was Sri Lanka, during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the capital Colombo this month. A Sri Lankan foreign ministry statement on 10 January said the Chinese minister had given an assurance that Sri Lankan students would be given the “highest priority”.

“I believe it is a common question, not only for Sri Lankan students, but also from many other countries’ students who want to return to universities in China,” Qi Zhenhong, Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, told media in Sri Lanka after Wang left.

“I must share with you that the Chinese government has already listed Sri Lanka on the first batch of the country when we open and overseas students are going to return.”

“But we must take into consideration that COVID-19 is still spreading. The Beijing Winter Olympics is also set to open in a few weeks. So we work step by step.

“I fully understand the difficulties and concerns of the students and their families. But I also hope our friends can understand the difficulties for China. Both sides should communicate on the issue and should work together on it for a better future,” he said.

Promises, particularly during diplomatic visits, that students from certain countries would be given priority have not materialised leading some students to say this is a standard response to the lobbying of their own ministries to intervene on their behalf with Chinese authorities. Chinese statements are now seen by students as “just empty words”, according to a student from Bangladesh.

A Sri Lankan student waiting to return to China tweeted on 9 January: “Please don’t give us fake hopes and don’t tell us ‘Sri Lankan students [will be] among the first to return to China’,” adding that students were tired of such “lollipops”.

“Give us new HOPE. Arrange return-back pilot programmes using all Sri Lankan students, not only medical students.”

Medical students have been particularly impacted due to requirements for clinical experience before being allowed to graduate. One medical student said via Twitter they had managed to transfer to Tajikistan and would be happy to help others wanting to do the same.

In early January CISU said it had heard from around two dozen students who said they had transferred to other universities, having given up on China.