China gears up for return of international students

China is gearing up for the return of foreign students shut out of the country and their university courses for over two years since COVID-19 border restrictions were imposed in 2020, after a number of Chinese embassies this week announced that overseas nationals with valid study visas for degree-level courses can enter the country.

Students recently accepted for admission to Chinese universities will also be able to apply for visas, China’s embassies in Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines and Vietnam said in their notifications. Several of these notifications indicated that the “new rules for students” would take effect from 24 August.

Tourists are still barred from entering China.

Similar notices of what the Chinese authorities are describing as a “new visa policy” were communicated by Chinese embassies in Algeria, Iran, Lebanon and some European and Latin American countries. In all, some 57 countries are included in the “new visa policy” relating to students returning to China.

The coordinated embassy notifications mark a shift away from the ad hoc announcements often made during diplomatic visits by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to countries in the Asian region.

In May and June a number of flights for groups of students from ‘friendly’ countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand were organised, but this was criticised as not amounting to a return-to-normal policy for international students.

Zero-COVID policy stays in place

Chinese officials insisted this week that welcoming students back to China did not mean China has abandoned its zero-COVID policy, with international arrivals still required to abide by the country’s epidemic prevention policies. These include adhering to internal quarantine, harsh lockdowns, which can be imposed suddenly on campuses, and repeat-testing policies which can disrupt the normal running of classes.

While the coordinated announcements have prompted a flurry of student applications for visas, students in countries like India, where thousands of students are waiting to return, said via social media they were concerned that they will not be able to get the documents needed for the visa application, including ‘no objection certificates’ (NOCs), from Chinese universities in time for the start of the university semester this month.

Some Chinese regions also require quarantine periods, with quarantine expenses paid by the students themselves, as well as vaccines and proof of negative tests for COVID before students can return to campus.

In late June, the quarantine period for international arrivals was shortened from 21 days to 10 days: seven days of centralised quarantine and three days of home quarantine.

Lu Hongzhou, head of the Shenzhen Third People's Hospital, was quoted by China’s official Global Times newspaper this week saying a further reduction of the quarantine period for inbound travellers in the short term is unlikely.

A university in Hubei province, which is collating information on international students wishing to return to China, indicated that international students currently abroad could return to China in October or November, according to Chinese social media – an indication that international students still face weeks of online study even if semester start dates are shifted.

Pre-COVID, universities in Hubei province became a magnet for foreign students after they began offering medical degrees taught in English.

Online classes have also been put in place by universities in areas where the semester start date has been delayed by COVID prevention measures.

Ji Rong, counsellor in the Department of Asian Affairs in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted to students, criticising the continuation of online classes: “(I) personally think online classes are a temporary arrangement before you return.”

New semester postponed

More than 20 colleges and universities have postponed the new semester start date due to the ongoing COVID situation in China. They include institutions in Beijing, Shaanxi province in Northwest China, Fujian province in the East of China, Guangdong province in the South, Liaoning and Jilin provinces, Global Times reported this week.

At least four universities in Shaanxi have postponed registration for new students due to an Omicron flare-up in the region in recent weeks.

Hainan Normal University, Hainan University, Hainan Medical University and Hainan Vocational University of Science and Technology also postponed the registration or arrival dates for students as Hainan province saw a major lockdown this month.
Hainan University said in a notice that the registration date for students returning to campus, originally scheduled for 21 August, had been temporarily postponed to 3 September “to ensure the health and safety of staff and students and in line with the requirements of epidemic prevention and control in the province”.

The university said classes will start normally on 22 August and online teaching will be implemented.

Hainan officials said at a press conference on 21 August that the pandemic situation was improving in Hainan, with infections across the province declining for three days in succession.

Beijing and some other cities with large numbers of colleges and universities are staggering their start dates to prevent a spike in infections if students arrive at the same time.

Tsinghua University in Beijing opened its doors to 3,700 undergraduate first-year students from 17 August, while new undergraduate and graduate students will return to Peking University from 28 August. However, Beijing Institute of Technology, Beijing Normal University and the Central Academy of Fine Arts are implementing online-only registration for new students or postponing the new semester start dates until mid-September.

Bureaucratic hurdles

Many Chinese universities with significant cohorts of foreign students say they will continue with online classes for international students who face delays in returning.

The notice from the Chinese embassy in India indicated that “for students who return to China to resume their studies, a ‘Certificate of Returning to Campus’ issued by the university in China" is required. But students have reported having been given varying time periods for obtaining such documents from universities in China.

A Malaysian student tweeted: “Today my university sent emails to students and asked them to provide a bank statement of US$3,000 even if they are on a full scholarship, just to check if they have money to pay for costly tickets+quarantine. They will provide NOC [no objection certificate] on the basis of bnk stmt.”

Other students said on social media that despite the ‘new visa policy’ universities in China were urging students not to apply to return as they are “not ready” and advised students to wait for further notice.

Ji Rong said in a tweet on 23 August: “What I have learnt from MOE [Ministry of Education] is [that] Chinese universities welcome you back and need some time to get prepared since new study visa policy just announced. Pls keep patience and faith.”

Infrequent and expensive flights to China

In addition to the bureaucratic hurdles in applications for Chinese visas, which can be slow in Chinese embassies in some countries, international flights to China are infrequent and expensive, many students in various countries have pointed out on social media.

China has been slowly increasing the number of international flights but continues to strictly regulate international travel under its stringent zero-COVID policy.

In the Asian region, limited flights to China were mainly from Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore during August, with no direct flights between China and India.

During May and June groups of 150-300 students from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Pakistan travelled to China on specially chartered flights. But this was a small number compared to the over 28,600 Thai students and 28,000 Pakistani students enrolled in Chinese universities before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Students from South Korea and Russia have been allowed back since 2021.

In early August the first batch of 150 Malaysian students landed at Shanghai Airport on a special chartered flight arranged by Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Weekly commercial passenger flights between Pakistan and China resumed this month after a gap of nearly six months, while airports in Xi’an and Beijing closed due to COVID prevention measures.

Pakistan International Airlines this week offered a 10% discount for Pakistani students on its flights between Pakistan and China after students complained about the price of flights, which averaged around US$940 from Karachi to Beijing. Students derided this as a “paltry gesture” after the airline had jacked up ticket prices to China as much as five times the normal fare between the neighbouring countries.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article