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Students Around the World Desperate to Finish Studies in China

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When Amma, an East African PhD student in the biological sciences at a university in Guangdong province, left for the holidays at the end of 2019, she planned to be gone three weeks. She put her experiment samples in the lab freezer, left her window open to let in some air, and decided to deal with her messy room when she got back.

Amma had no way of knowing that her departure would coincide with the outbreak of what is now known as Covid-19, a global pandemic that over a year and a half later has left her — and tens of thousands of other international students enrolled at Chinese universities — stuck indefinitely outside China amid its zero-tolerance approach to coronavirus prevention and control. 

When news of Covid-19 began to break during the Lunar New Year travel rush in mid-January 2020, many international students had already gone home. Those who hadn’t were either told by their universities to leave or were forced, like Sunil, a fourth-year medical student in Shaanxi province from North India, to make the sudden decision of whether to leave or stay. 

Sunil, who eventually got on one of the last planes out, was initially told by school officials that the Spring Festival vacation was being extended by two or three weeks, and then the semester would begin.

After hearing rumors, Amma contacted her university from abroad and was informed that the campus had been shut down: no one could come in or out.

“Though flights were available, I couldn’t really force my way in. [It was] like ‘If you come, we will not let you in. The gates are closed,’” she says. 

China’s zero-tolerance policy has been very effective in keeping its virus numbers low, but some experts have begun questioning its long-term viability, economic and otherwise. Its stringent regulations have shut down several ports in southern China this year, causing disruptions in supply chains, not to mention the tolls its closed borders could take on diplomatic and cultural exchanges. 

Over the past decade, China has courted foreign students, with the intention to become a global leader in education, which it sees as key to building ‘soft power’ and influence abroad. At a time when it is increasingly difficult for students in parts of Africa and Asia to get student visas and pay for their educations in the West, China has been “pushing this idea that [it] is a source of knowledge that is relevant to developing countries,” says Obert Hodzi, a lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool. “They can tailor courses to suit certain countries’ demands … and attract students to China.”

Jinan University

Jinan University in Guangzhou, the capital of South China’s Guangdong province. Image via Depositphotos

After the US and the UK, China currently ranks third in the world for the most international students. In 2010, China’s Ministry of Education launched its Study in China initiative with the goal of having 500,000 international students by 2020. In 2013, this plan was incorporated into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi Jinping’s pet infrastructure development project that currently involves 138 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

In coordination with this policy, the Silk Road Scholarship Program offers 10,000 scholarships a year to students from countries participating in the BRI. In 2018, 492,185 students from more than 196 countries studied in China, up from 489,200 the year before, nearly 65% of whom came from BRI countries.

During spring 2020, all Chinese university classes were held online, and the international students who remained in the country were primarily confined to their dorms. Those who had left originally expected to come back when Chinese students returned to campus in the fall. When that didn’t happen, hopes were pinned on spring 2021; then, fall 2021. Now the consensus seems to be that China is waiting until after February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

Notably, the Chinese government has issued no word on the subject beyond iterations of this statement given by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on July 9, 2021: 

“The Chinese government always attaches high importance to the issue of foreign students coming to China for their studies. On the basis of ensuring safety amid Covid-19, we will consider in a coordinated manner arrangement for allowing foreign students to return to China for their studies.” 

“The assumption is that the universities will make arrangements with the students,” explains Hodzi. “Some universities did make those arrangements … but for some students, it [is] a bit of a challenge to continue their studies online.”

Not only in many international students’ home countries is the internet unstable or prohibitively expensive, but international students also disproportionately come to China to study the sciences and engineering. These disciplines require a hands-on, practical application.

Sunil is doubtful that his education since returning home can adequately prepare him to be a doctor. With the students in his pharmacology class spread out across a handful of time zones, having an actual online class is out of the question. Instead, his professor posts videos of experiments, which he and his fellow Indian classmates have had trouble downloading due to India’s ban on Chinese apps. His professor has also provided the class with a link to a website demonstrating reactions to certain drugs on an animated rabbit. 

“We are supposed to be mixing actual chemicals and experimenting on the effect of drugs on animals. How can you practice practical medical skills on a simulation?” Sunil asks. “It’s simply not possible.”

He’s tried to compensate by reading daily from medical textbooks he’s acquired on his own and even thought about applying to a school in another country, like Russia or Georgia. However, none of his credits would transfer, and he doesn’t want to have to restart medical school from the beginning or cost his parents the extra tuition. “They said, ‘if you want to start again, we can support you,’ but on a personal level, I don’t want to be a burden to them. I don’t want them to have to start paying all the tuition fees again just because I’m impatient [or feeling] hopeless.”

Fudan University Shanghai

A student walks past a signboard of the School of Journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Image via Depositphotos

Although China uses scholarships as an incentive to increase foreign enrollment, most international students are paying their own way. It’s become common in the developing world for parents to make great sacrifices — using all their savings or selling property — to send their children to universities in the Chinese mainland, seeing it as an investment for the family. A disruption or interruption in the studies of these students risks impacting their families as well. 

However, even some students awarded Chinese government scholarships are currently struggling. China has stopped issuing the scholarships’ stipends on the grounds that the money was meant to be used for living expenses while in school in China. For Ibrahim, a Silk Road Scholarship recipient from Nigeria and an MA student in international business, the loss of this money has been grave. “It’s very hard for me to survive … I need to pay rent. I need to pay for food and other things, and with the arrangement of our studies, it’s very difficult to have a job,” he says.

To defray living costs and pay for the internet access he needs for his classes, he has relied heavily on assistance from family and raises chickens at his father’s home. His classmates have similarly been forced to generate income in innovative ways. “In most countries, it’s very hard to get a part-time job. You’re just trying your best to survive so that you can graduate and have your degree.” Ibrahim, too, has thought about transferring to another school, but it doesn’t make economic sense as a student with a full scholarship. 

Since last fall, international students have been conducting a multi-social media platform campaign, using the hashtag #takeusbacktoChina to tell their stories and spotlight their plight. “We are in deep pain,” reads the tag on a related group’s Twitter account. 

What has turned challenging circumstances into a form of existential nightmare is how this transitional period has stretched on for so long. Since January 2020, students haven’t known whether they would be able to return to school in a month or a year, making it harder to plan for the immediate future and even make personal life decisions. 

Amma was in the process of completing the experiments for her dissertation when she left, and the process of her degree has been stalled since. Recently, her advisor suggested that she find a lab nearby to resume her work, an idea she finds preposterous.

“Who’s going to buy the equipment? Who’s going to buy my experiment materials?” she asks. “Also, a lot of labs would be reluctant to let me do my work there because they’re not going to get the credit. I’m not their student.”

She’s going to wait until after the Olympics, and if she can’t return then, she might just forget about the program. “I think after February, I might just move on to my next plan. I’m probably going to end up getting married [and] look for a job elsewhere because that’s a part of my life that’s been put on hold. My partner and I were trying to get married after I graduated … but we might have to move that up.”

China hopes that the international students it educates will, to some extent, become China emissaries upon their return to their home countries, espousing the virtues of the country and the Chinese way of life. While it may be too soon to fully recognize how — and if — the situation will impact China’s relationships with certain countries in the long-term, the international students themselves and those in their immediate circles have indeed become more critical towards China.  

“When this Covid situation ends, it’s going to be very difficult to start convincing people again to come to study in China,” Hodzi notes, adding, “[The handling of this situation] paints a very bad picture of what China usually talks about with ‘people to people exchange,’ ‘win-win,’ and ‘mutually beneficial’ type things … they really showed that when situations like Covid happen, then international students don’t matter.”

Amma’s feelings toward China haven’t changed much — she always knew what she was dealing with. Most of the people she knows, however, have become more negative. 

Sunil, though, still feels blindsided. His years in Shaanxi were among the best in his life. The people were welcoming. He made new friends. He fell in love. His university treated the Chinese and international students with the same respect. He wrote the winning essays for several writing contests on China that were featured in national magazines and on websites, piling on the accolades. Now he says, “I feel like this is more of a one-sided love, where I’m continuously praising China and saying really good things … but China is like, ‘You want some appreciation? I’ll give you a certificate with your name written in golden letters, but if you ask me about when you can come back, I’ll just go silent.’”

The names in this article (except for Obert Hodzi) have been changed to ensure this story does not impact the ability of the featured international students to return to China.

Cover image via Depositphotos

Elyse Weingarten
    Elyse Weingarten is a freelance writer who splits her time between the US and Beijing.