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Back to China 2022: Students weary of unfulfilled promises

Back to China: Since 2020, international students have been locked out of China. Although various sources have claimed that a re-entry would be imminent, no clear directive has been issued to greenlight students' return.
Since 2020, international students have been locked out of China. Although various sources have claimed that a re-entry would be imminent, no clear directive has been issued to greenlight students' return. Source: Photo by Jade Gao / AFP

It’s 2022 and international students still can’t go back to China. Stranded for two years, they’ve mobilised online to plead their case, marched in front of embassies, spoken to international media, and lobbied with ambassadors.

Adding to their never-ending affliction are unverified claims of an imminent return, which has not materialised until today.

An online survey conducted by China International Students Union (CISU) — one of the most vocal student groups speaking out against China’s border closures — revealed that foreign students have been at the receiving end of emails and announcements that would end their predicament.

CISU recorded 469 valid responses as of Wednesday, and are still collecting data at the time of writing. Students from more than 50 countries participated in the survey, with most registering a “No” for their answer. Meanwhile, those who have received emails for a possible return remain dubious over the veracity of the claims.

So far, the Chinese government has been silent about opening its borders for registered international students. China continues to uphold its rigid zero-COVID policy ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing that is set to happen on Feb. 4 this year.

Back to China: International students at their wits end over false promises

Back to China: As China prepares for the Winter Olympics in 2022, many await an official announcement from Beijing for borders to reopen.

As China prepares for the Winter Olympics in 2022, many await an official announcement from Beijing for borders to reopen. Source: AFP / China OUT

As frustration mounts over the two years since China closed off its borders, several announcements have been made by either universities, embassies or state officials to allay international students’ alarm over their no-return status to China.

From the recent survey, Cambodian and Indonesian students had reportedly been notified by the Chinese embassy in both countries hinting at plans for a return in mid-2020. This echoes the remarks made in November 2021 by Deng Xijun, ambassador of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), that students from the region “would be prioritised” when borders reopen, according to SCMP.

In another press statement, Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah had previously mentioned in December 2021 that China could allow international students to resume their studies, with priority reserved for final-year students who require on-campus facilities to complete lab work and research as part of their degree programme. “Since they have formed a network, I offered to help facilitate the relationship with Malaysian students who are waiting to return to China,” Abdullah was quoted saying.

Reassurances were also given to Pakistani students locked out of China. “The issue has been discussed at various levels with the Chinese authorities both in Beijing and Islamabad,” Asim Iftikhar, a spokesperson for the Pakistani Foreign Office, was reported saying to Arab News. “We are pursuing the matter and are continuously in touch with the Chinese side at all levels,” he added. So far, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad responded that it had “nothing to comment on the matter at this time”.

On Jan. 6, the Pak-China Overseas Community (PCOC) announced on its official Twitter page that they would convene with Pakistani students and business representatives on the same day to note growing concerns over China’s prolonged border shutdown. PCOC has vowed to forward their apprehension to the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad and other relevant officials, the statement read.

Still, students are all-too familiar with empty promises hurled in their direction. “Please give us a clear statement. No more fake hopes; we are fed up,” a student retorts on Twitter. Unable to go back to China, Pakistanis fear that their Chinese education may be rendered worthless. Foreign medical qualifications obtained without in-person training will not be recognised for practice in Pakistan, which has drawn the ire of medical students who are victims of the situation.

Meanwhile, Russian students noted in the survey that some were alerted by universities via email that international student return would reportedly be done 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.

“To be honest, I’m tired of making predictions and getting false hopes. I’m already at peace with not studying in China or going back before graduating,” a Russian student told Study International.

At the time of writing, only South Korean students have been greenlighted to go back to China under an arrangement between the two countries. Although analysts have indicated that Beijing would relax its international borders after the Winter Olympics, many remain sceptical over the prediction due to China’s new lockdown measures in Xi’an as the country grapples with a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.