City lockdowns hinder Chinese students’ study-abroad plans

The COVID-19-related lockdowns affecting many major Chinese cities present ongoing hurdles not only for international students hoping to return to China, but also for those Chinese students planning to study overseas in the coming weeks as they cannot leave their cities to complete the necessary procedures.

Local residential community officials who hold sway over who can enter and leave certain areas are reportedly refusing permission to leave residences to even those with pressing paperwork to complete for study abroad applications. This is despite the fact that study abroad is one of the priority areas for those seeking exemptions from some Zero-COVID rules.

After China imposed restrictions in May on Chinese citizens leaving the country, refusing to grant exit permits, students with acceptance letters from universities abroad were considered an exception and allowed to leave.

However, according to Caixin, an economic daily, despite no COVID cases being reported for at least seven days in the Sichuan neighbourhood of a student it named only as ‘Ding’, who has applied to a university in the United Kingdom, she had not been able to leave the neighbourhood to go to the visa centre.

A government statement said each household can arrange for one person with a negative nucleic acid test result to go out once a day to shop for supplies, while those who need to go out for medical or other ‘special’ reasons must seek permission from their residential committee. However, it did not specify whether study abroad could be counted as a special reason.

Uncertainty over travel requests

Another student in an area in the Sichuan capital Chengdu, deemed to be at low risk of COVID-19, was unable to get the go-ahead from her residential committee and said neither the committee nor the property management appeared to know how to handle travel requests from students intending to go abroad. She noted that students in higher risk areas would have struggled even more.

Ding is one of many students in Sichuan facing trouble getting to their overseas university as the provincial capital Chengdu has been cut off by lockdowns and travel bans, according to Caixin. This has been compounded by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake which hit the region on 5 September, bringing down powerlines and killing at least 66, according to early tallies.

Ding said she faces financial losses of nearly CNY400,000 (US$57,500) in tuition fees, accommodation and other fees and would probably have to wait until September 2023 to take up her place if she is unable to get to the UK in time.

The Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA), which groups university recruitment agents and study abroad companies, told University World News it had no data on the number of students in China unable to obtain overseas visas and complete other procedures in time to take up study abroad places.

“We believe that families and students managed to apply as early as they possibly could, in anticipation of these potential hindrances. And we haven’t received any negative reports about this issue, not even from agent members,” said Jon Santangelo, a spokesperson in the international department of BOSSA and the countrywide China Overseas Study Service Alliance (COSSA).

China has not reported a total number of outbound students since the start of the pandemic. A Ministry of Education report, Studying Abroad Guideline 2022, recommended that students apply for multiple programmes in more than one country and be prepared for remote learning. The guideline also points to international politics and visa policies as factors affecting students’ choices.

Even before the latest lockdowns, visa backlogs were a common problem at embassies and consulates of countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States, which are popular study abroad destinations.

More than 68 cities in lockdown

China’s National Health Commission said at least 68 cities were in partial or full lockdown earlier this month. Almost every province has recorded infections in the past two weeks. Caixin estimated some 65 million people were in lockdown this week as the country battles what is being described as its most widespread COVID-19 outbreak since early 2020.

Some 103 cities reported COVID cases on 1 September though actual numbers of confirmed infections were low – around 1,500.

Chengdu, with a population of 21 million, is particularly badly hit with the latest outbreak beginning on 25 August. Chengdu is the biggest city in China after Shanghai to go into full lockdown. Shanghai was in lockdown for two months from mid-March, affecting all universities in the city.

Other major cities currently in lockdown include Chongqing, Dalian and Tianjin. Some areas of Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province, a major technology hub, are also in lockdown.

Chengdu reported 72 COVID-19 cases and 52 asymptomatic infections on Saturday, bringing the current tally to 850 and 345 respectively, according to the Sichuan Provincial Health Commission. Chengdu residents were ordered to remain in their homes from 1 September with stringent entry and exit restrictions for residential compounds in the city and some transport lines suspended.

The city of Chongqing in Sichuan province locked down so swiftly that students at Chongqing University were unable to receive food deliveries ordered online just before the restrictions. Elderly retirees were videoed trying to throw delivery packages left by deliverymen outside a campus boundary wall to students on the other side.

Beijing cluster

The authorities had earlier ordered a staggered reopening of universities in Beijing with some 230,000 students expected to return in the coming days, according to the official Global Times newspaper.

However, several universities in Beijing were also in lockdown this week after a confirmed infection and five positive tests at Beijing University of Chemical Technology’s Changping campus in the capital, according to a briefing on 6 September by the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control which said the university had 18 cases this week in its cluster.

“The number of daily cases has dropped, thanks to timely and decisive measures,” said Liu Xiaofeng, deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control. “The recent virus outbreaks related to colleges and universities once again showed that the epidemic prevention and control situation is grim.”

The university placed its three campuses in different parts of Beijing under lockdown, with travel restrictions imposed between campuses.

Beijing’s education authorities have imposed epidemic prevention measures on students and faculties “during the entire progress of their return journey to the campuses”.

The frequency of nucleic acid tests taken by students and faculty who return to the campus is being increased. Movement and activities at the campuses have to be reduced and all kinds of get-togethers and gatherings are to be banned, according to the authorities.

University World News Asia editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.