china open
International students continue to demand for a date of return from China, whose borders have remained closed for 2 years. Source: Hector Retamal/AFP

When will China open its borders to international students again? As of March, it remains the only country actively banning international students from entry. 

Global Admissions, a website that uses a traffic light system to provide information to students about travel restrictions in various higher education destinations worldwide, shows that China is the only red country that isn’t allowing international students to return. The country has a zero-COVID policy

“We have checked every country and region, and China is now the only one in the world not allowing students to return, and not offering any kind of return plan,” CEO Richard Coward told The PIE News

In recent months, countries worldwide are gradually resuming international travel after almost two years of restrictions. 

Recent reports indicate as many as 100,000 students may be allowed to return to Japanese universities and institutions by the end of May. On top of this, Japan’s government has announced plans to give out 100,000 Yen (860 US dollars) to foreign exchange students who have been facing financial hardships due to COVID-19. 

China remains the only country with a strict zero-COVID policy. Source: Noel Celis/AFP

Other countries that have fully opened to students include the UK, Germany, US, South Korea, Singapore, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, Italy, Denmark, and India. 

Some have partially opened to students, or have concrete plans to welcome students. New Zealand, for example, said a new cohort of up to 5,000 international students can enter New Zealand from mid-2022 as a border exception, through a centrally managed process. Normal visa processing would resume in October.

International students at Chinese universities have been asking for a return date throughout the pandemic, to no avail. Recently, a consul from the Embassy of China in Lebanon tweeted that the Chinese foreign ministry is set to “roll out a plan this year to facilitate safe, healthy, and convenient international travel”. 

China opens to South Korea, leaving students frustrated

There are some student groups that China opens its borders to. Those with exceptions to enter the country include students at New York University Shanghai, Tianjin Juilliard, some Schwarzman Scholarship students, and 30 Nicaraguan scholarship holders.

South Korean nationals are also included as exceptions to China’s hard border rule. Students are frustrated that this reportedly extends to unvaccinated travellers as well, while they remain banned from entering the country.

“The restrictions have also meant I am unable to be a doctor anywhere at the moment – yet South Korean students, some not even vaccinated, are allowed to go into China,” one student told The PIE News. 

This has presented a major struggle for the student, who lost belongings and personal documents when their dormitory was “cleaned away” in their absence. 

“We medical students go to China for six years to do our degree,” the student, who requested to stay anonymous, told the portal. “It is the most important time of our lives – but now I’m just hoping to graduate, and won’t even go to China for the graduation.”

Others fear that the prolonged border closure will result in the cancellation of their degrees. These include Indian students who have completed their courses, but have yet to undertake internships or other work experience mandatory for their degrees. 

Students have taken to social media throughout the course of the pandemic, using the hashtag #TakeUsBackToChina to raise awareness about their plight. This includes attempts to contact their countries’ respective governments in the hopes they would help facilitate their travel to China. 

Students are frustrated by China’s ban on their entry despite the country opening to South Koreans and for the Winter Olympics. Source: Jade Gao/AFP

Scholars confident of eventual China opening

Despite this, scholars remain optimistic that international student flows to China will rebound once the country announces a date to open its borders. 

I remain hopeful that the number of international students wanting to study in China post-COVID-19 will rebound strongly or even surpass the number in 2019,” Wei Ha, associate dean of the Graduate School of Education at Peking University, told Times Higher Education

Some students reportedly arrived in the country despite China’s tough international border ban.

Peking University is one of few institutions in China that has welcomed international students through its doors since the start of the pandemic. In September, it admitted 1,304 foreign first-year students, with 280 arriving on campus. 

Similarly, Hamish Coates of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, told THE: “China will rebound post-pandemic like other major [transnational education] countries, and like others will spring forth in novel ways.”

Despite this, international student interest in China as a higher education destination has waned significantly. In a survey conducted by China International Student Union, 46.8% of its 1473 respondents would not recommend China as a study or travel destination to family or friends, and 53% have reported experiencing serious mental health issues due to the prolonged border closure.