china travel ban
These planes aren't ferrying international students into China. Source: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

Anger, frustration and hopelessness permeate the air as Pakistani students remain locked out of China due to the country’s zero-COVID policy. The China travel ban has shut borders to outsiders since March 2020 after the virus outbreak halted international travels, leaving more than half a million students stranded abroad.  

For Pakistani students unable to resume classes on campus, the two-year ordeal of awaiting return to their universities have caused many to reach the end of their tethers. 

“We are baffled by the policies of China regarding the ban. As it’s an airborne virus, it can’t be eliminated … at best it can be contained,” said a third-year PhD student in Electrical Engineering at Sichuan University. 

The student, who has declined to be named, is one of many joining the international outcry on the China travel ban on Twitter via hashtags such as #TakeStudentsBacktoChina and #TakeUsBackToChina to voice their concerns. Like him, many foreign students leaving China in January 2020 flew home for their winter break. Little did they know that it would stretch into a prolonged nightmare in academic limbo. 

Even though Chinese universities have transitioned into online learning, the lack of face-to-face instructions just doesn’t cut it for STEM students, who require practicum and lab work to fulfill their course requirements. “Unfortunately I need a lab to finish building a prototype based on my simulations. As a PhD student, I have to submit several journal articles and for that, I need results from my experiments, which can’t be done from home,” he explained to Study International. 

“We have written open letters to the Government of Pakistan for help and support, used social media, written petitions [and] given interviews to journalists,” he said. 

China travel ban: Ignored pleas, uncertain futures 

Last year, Arab News reported that the Pakistani government has taken steps to aid their students’ return to China. “We are constantly in touch with the Chinese authorities on the issue, and trying to resolve it as soon as possible,” Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, the spokesperson for the Foreign Office, was quoted saying. 

The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan has also set up a special portal for more than 8,000 Pakistani students enrolled in Chinese universities, a source reports

However, there are no clear mentions of an exact time frame to greenlight their re-entry at the time of writing. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, asserts that China “will continue taking prevention and control measures” in a recent press conference, giving no indication of easing its zero-COVID policy. 

“We have taken all steps, like [using] social media (Twitter, Facebook) to run our campaign, knocked every door, approached [people in government], journalists, everybody — just begging to talk to [the] Chinese government or higher authorities for international students of China — but all in vain,” a Pakistani student in University of Jinan, who is now in her final year of PhD in Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, told Study International. 

“It impacts a lot, [our] future is at stake, our precious time is flying, we are begging — please do something for us. We want to go back to China soon to get our degree on time. We are hopeless now. No jobs, no stipend, no degree,” the student was quoted saying.

She has completed her courses, with only lab work and published papers left to clear in order to receive her doctorate degree. That possibility is looking like it’s inching away in the current situation. 

“Already two years have passed. For medical students, their online degree will be nothing but garbage, because the Pakistani government is not accepting their online courses and degrees. But they [are] all paying their fees too.”

The student is referring to a recent official announcement issued on Twitter by the Pakistani Medical Commission (PMC), clarifying that it will not recognise any undergraduate or postgraduate certificates acquired through online teaching or tutorial programmes without in-person physical training at a PMC-recognised Foreign Medical or Dental teaching institution. 

It is unclear whether this includes students involuntarily locked out of foreign universities at the time of writing. The shocking statement nevertheless compounded the disappointments of medical students further, who now fear for their future prospects in the country. 

“If you are not accepting, then do something for those students who are stuck in Pakistan and unable to go back to China. Where should students go?” a medical student replies

With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics set to take place in February, an advisor to China’s State Council hopes that the country’s stringent approach in tackling the pandemic will shift so that its borders can gradually reopen, according to Time

At the moment, only South Korean students have been granted visas to return to China, SCMP reports. Meanwhile, Duke Kunshan University and New York University Shanghai hint at a return for its international students, despite no official announcement from the government of any such plans allowing re-entry for international students.