China considers ‘coordinated’ return of int’l students’, but sets no timeline for Indians

china border opening
A lack of clear communication regarding China's border opening means more uncertainty for international students. Source: Hector Retamal/AFP

International students have been locked out of China for the past two years and there has still not been any updates over the China border opening. Beijing, however, has reportedly made assurances over the return of students from Singapore, Malaysia and Pakistan without committing to a timeline. 

On Tuesday, China said that it was considering a “coordinated” arrangement for the return of foreign students. This includes over 23,000 Indians who have been stuck at home since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, said reports. 

When asked at a media briefing on Tuesday when China will permit stranded Indian students and what is hindering Beijing from allowing them, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian reportedly said: “I can tell you that the Chinese government attaches great importance to the issue of foreign students returning to China for their studies.

“We are considering in a coordinated manner the arrangement for allowing foreign students to return to China for their studies. We stand ready to work actively toward the healthy, safe and orderly cross-border flow of people on the basis of sound anti-epidemic protocols.”

Zhao did not specify a clear timeline regarding when Indian students can return.

On Sunday, a joint statement by China and Pakistan stated that China will arrange for Pakistani students’ return, but did not give a definite timeline. 

This comes after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan concluded a four-day visit to the country, where reports said he met with top Chinese leadership from political and business areas and attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

“Both sides noted with satisfaction robust cooperation between Pakistan and China in the education (sic) sector, and committed to further enhance cooperation between the educational institutions of the two countries,” read the statement. 

“Pakistan side highlighted that China has become a popular education destination. While ensuring safety against COVID-19, China will arrange for Pakistani students to return to China and resume classes in a prudent manner.”

Students from India — and indeed, from all over the world — have reported a deterioration in their mental health due to the prolonged border closure. Many have been struggling with their online studies, with some choosing to pause their studies amidst the uncertainty. 

Date on China border opening still not confirmed

Students have been asking the Indian government to intervene on their behalf. Source: Greg Baker/AFP

Over the course of the pandemic, Indian students have been vocal about their frustration with China over its strict border policy and the country’s lack of communication about when they will be able to return. Many flew home for the winter holidays and were unexpectedly stranded there since. 

“We’re just asking for a date for our return,” shared one student in a tweet. “Two years passed on yet we have no clue about our return. COVID won’t be eradicated anytime soon, so what’s the use of vaccines if these restrictions aren’t removed?”

Students have written to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requesting government intervention on the matter. 

“We are 25,000 Indian students studying in Chinese universities who have been forced to participate in online classes for the past 17 months because of travel and visa restrictions. Our medical study requires a lot of practical and group work, but our entry to China and our respective universities have been banned for the past year-and-a-half and we are suffering every day,” read the letter, as reported by The Hindustan Times.

Others are beginning to lose faith in the Chinese government. 

Speaking to Study International, a medical student who only wanted to be identified as Meera said: “The fact that they have still kept that student visa ban breaks our hearts.

“It gives an impression that China does not have our best interests in mind. We find ourselves having to defend China to other people because of all the rumours going around, which are sometimes senseless. The fact that we are defending China but China is not doing anything to lift up that student visa ban — it’s heartbreaking.”

The plight of Indian medical students

Medical students fear that their future as doctors are in jeopardy. Source: Noel Celis/AFP

Indian medical students in particular have expressed worry that their future as doctors are in jeopardy. Last year, an MBBS student at Xi’an Jiaotong University told The Indian Express that while he still attends online classes, he was “completely missing out on practicals” and has not done an anatomy dissection despite being in his second year. 

Others have expressed how virtual learning, including using online academic resources, is no substitute for in-person classes. 

“Some students left their laptops in China and now they have to study online with their phones,” added Meera. “Or they have to buy a new laptop. This can be extremely difficult for students coming from a poorer financial background.”