Indian students unlikely to return to China any time soon

Indian students who had to leave their university courses in China during the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 and have remained stranded in India for over two years are unlikely to return soon despite a recent Chinese announcement that it plans to permit the return of ‘some’ Indian students.

Following a meeting between India’s external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, during the Chinese minister’s visit to India in March – the first meeting between the two countries for over two years – the Chinese foreign ministry last week suggested it was willing to facilitate the return of Indian students to its universities but provided no timetable.

China closed all its universities in 2020 due to the pandemic, but even after some universities resumed last year, China restricted inbound travel by suspending visa and residence permits from 27 March 2020. Some 20,000 Indian students were enrolled in various courses including clinical medicine courses in different Chinese universities at that time.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a media briefing in Beijing in late April that “the work for Indian students’ return has already started. All that remains to be done is for the Indian side to provide the list of students who really need to come back to China.”

But Zhao had also emphasised that the COVID situation in China “remains complex and severe. The arrangement for the return of foreign students to China needs to be made in a coordinated manner in light of the changing international epidemic situation and the characteristic of the student’s degree subject. This principle applies equally to all foreign students.”

India’s foreign ministry has said that during the 25 March meeting Wang had recognised the particular concerns of medical students on completing their clinical studies and placements in China as these cannot be conducted online.

Despite an apparent focus on medical students, Jaishankar had said: “We hope China will take a non-discriminatory approach since it involves the future of many young people.”

Mixed reception by students

While the Chinese ‘announcement’ was widely flagged in India’s media as a breakthrough on the issue after a strong lobbying effort by the stranded students, it received a mixed response from the students who feel it is too early to celebrate, with so many ‘false dawns’ in the past.

The Indian government has asked the students to provide their details, to be shared with the Chinese embassy. But the Foreign Medical Graduates Parents Association (FMGPA), a group of parents of Indian medical students studying in foreign countries, said it would launch a campaign this month seeking more precise information.

FMPGA Joint Secretary Mohammed Sageer said: “We will carry on our struggle. The announcement made by China would not help the students much as it is not clear when students would be able to return or how many will be called initially.”

Announcement ‘cannot be taken seriously’

China experts in India believe that the Chinese announcement to permit the students’ return cannot be taken seriously while major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are currently in lockdown with travel restricted out of these cities. Many universities are closed.

“Even without the ongoing COVID outbreaks in major cities [in China], this would have been too much to expect, given China’s zero-COVID policy,” said Jabin T Jacob, associate professor in the department of international relations and governance studies at Shiv Nadar University and an expert on India-China relations.

“I think the announcement was made merely to create the impression that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to India had yielded some results that the Indians could talk about – this was an issue that the Indian foreign minister had raised in his meeting.”

Jacob told University World News the issue only arose “because the Indian government had come under criticism for its slow evacuation of Indian students from Ukraine, and the government wanted to create the impression that it was concerned about the welfare of students, not because the Indian government actually believes the Chinese will take the students back.”

Jacob indicated there were wider political and geopolitical reasons for China’s zero-COVID policies which include visa restrictions. “This is an important year politically for the Chinese with the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party later in the year,” which is expected to confirm Chinese leader Xi Jinping for a third term in office.

“So, the Chinese will not want additional complications coming from the arrival of foreigners or new outbreaks of COVID in the run-up to the Congress,” he said.

The situation in Ukraine is also a consideration in China’s stance, with both China and India abstaining in United Nations votes to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and reluctant to take a strong stance against Moscow.

“While the Chinese would like to create the impression of some kind of meeting of minds between India and China on the Ukraine crisis that is against the West, they already achieved this when Wang Yi was allowed to visit India. They don’t really need to allow Indian students to return,” according to Jacob.

Supreme Court intervention

Earlier, in February, Indian medical students enrolled in Chinese universities had approached the Delhi High Court seeking clear guidelines from the Indian government on their qualifications while they are unable to travel to China due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Meanwhile, the plight of stranded medical students, particularly from Ukraine where some 18,000 Indian students were studying at the time of the Russian invasion and were forced by the conflict to return to India, is being considered with several schemes to help the students complete residential internships in India.

This is being closely watched by the Indian students waiting to go back to China, who want equal treatment.

India’s Supreme Court last week asked the country’s National Medical Commission (NMC) to set up a scheme for clinical training of medical students enrolled in foreign universities who had to return to India during the pandemic without physically completing their mandatory clinical training.

The court was examining whether a degree granted by a foreign institution without clinical training was binding on the NMC and whether such students could be provisionally registered. Some students claimed they had completed online clinical training, but the NMC maintained online training was not acceptable as recognised training involves diagnosis and interaction with patients.

The Supreme Court held that the NMC was not obliged to grant provisional registration to students who had not completed the entire duration of the course from a foreign institution, including clinical training, as ‘practicals’ formed the backbone of such education.

But it directed the NMC to frame a scheme within two months “as a one-time measure” to permit students who have not physically completed clinical training to undergo clinical training at Indian medical colleges.

A few of the students had already been granted provisional registration by the Tamil Nadu Medical Council, but one of the students who was declined registration approached the Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu state. The court directed the state’s NMC to provisionally register the students and allow them to undergo the residential internships required to qualify. However, the NMC went to the Supreme Court.

Some students hope the top court’s direction could have an impact on students who had been studying in China.

Supreme Court lawyer Ehtesham Hashmi told University World News: “The students who have returned from Ukraine because of war and those sent back [from China] because of the pandemic should be treated equally. In both situations they had to come back because of a situation beyond their control.”