‘I don’t want to give up’: The international student campaign to return to China

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Frustrations have reached a crescendo for international students attending Chinese universities remotely. Source: Wang Zhao/AFP

Russian native Panovkina Vitalina flew home from Fujian, China, where she was studying, during her winter break in January. She’s been there ever since. “I hardly took any clothes and books with me, because I was sure I would get back to school in two weeks. However, a few days after I got home, Russia closed its borders, and the university forbade us to get back. So it’s been 11 months ‘in the middle of nowhere’, as many students say, because we haven’t received any official notice neither from the Chinese nor from local authorities during this period regarding our future,” the 23-year-old told Study International via email. 

Vitalina is among the hundreds of international students currently locked out of China due to COVID-19-related border closures. They are beginning to feel like personae non gratae — Latin for “unwelcome people.” Universities and Chinese authorities have reportedly not been forthcoming with information over when they can return to China. Frustrated and desperate, they are turning to social media to highlight their plight. 

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Vitalina has been studying Chinese since her first year of university. Several visits to China during her undergraduate studies prompted her to pursue her master’s in the country. Source: Supplied

The #TakeStudentsBacktoChina campaign on Twitter is calling for more support and clarity from the authorities. Vitalina and five other Russian students have also started an online campaign on three social platforms: Twitter, Instagram and VKontakte — a renowned social media platform in Russia — to attract the attention of the authorities, seeking their help to get back to Chinese universities and resume in-person classes. They even sent around 100 letters to Russian President Vladimir Putin from each student.

Vitalina said international students are worried about their education and future careers, adding that “the uncertainty we face every day makes things even worse because we feel depressed and lost.” The master’s in enterprise management student said scholarship recipients who are not in China have stopped receiving their monthly stipends and have to find a job. In most cases, this is an impossible ask as they have to attend online classes.

Due to the time difference between Russia and China, students may find themselves sitting for classes at 3 a.m.. Some have no classes at all. Others who have to complete their lab work cannot graduate. “We don’t want to live like this with a feeling that our lives are ruined and, honestly, I don’t know how many of us can get through another online semester. There are so many reasons why this campaign needs to be noticed,” said Vitalina. Initially, when classes moved online during the spring semester, Vitalina had a relatively good experience as her cohort had switched to online learning. Today, students in China have already resumed offline classes.

As the only international student in the group and the only one who is still taking online classes, she finds it a challenge. “My studies don’t require any lab work, fortunately, but I still have to complete the internship, and we have some group projects and discussions quite often,” she said. 

It’s also getting harder to get support. “Usually, if we have any problem, we can send an email to someone from the school who can help us to solve the issue. However, most of the time I personally don’t feel like a student of my university, I don’t even feel like I exist at all,” she said. Vitaliana’s university has organised online classes for international students stuck abroad, but they feel like a second-grade replacement to her. “No one is paying attention to you during the class,” adding that she’s missing out on the quintessential experience of participating in class discussions and interacting with her classmates.

International students want Chinese universities, authorities to step up

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Pribyleva is frustrated by the lack of communication from her university and the authorities. Source: Supplied

Another Russian student, Elena Pribyleva, feels “abandoned” by her university when she needed the help most. The scholarship recipient was doing a non-degree Chinese programme when the pandemic struck and stopped receiving her monthly allowances since she was stuck abroad. “I am 25 and I cannot rely on my mother [for] help as she is retired and I do not have [a] father or other relatives,” she said. Online classes are hard for Privyleva, as she does not have good Internet connectivity. Face-to-face learning is “way more effective and convenient” for her.

When she tried to contact her university, “they ignored most of my questions,” the 25-year-old says. She’s still trying, but there is no reply. 

Pribyleva foresees that China will be closed to international students “for a long time,” adding that she “cannot wait so long”. She will be pursuing her master’s in architecture in Australia soon. “I appreciate that my Australian university takes care of international students, for instance, they keep in touch with me all the time and they provide me with [a] 25% discount for my study course.”

Another student, PhD candidate Samra Bashara, decided to further her studies in China because of its good academic and research facilities. She returned to Pakistan after one semester but was stuck when the pandemic hit. It has been one year, and she has yet to receive news over when she can return to China. “We are asked to wait for further notice,” she said. It’s particularly taxing for Basharat, who said her research could not be done online, while some remote students live in areas with low connectivity.

Yet, China still holds a special place in the heart of these international students. “Despite all the difficulties, I love my university and enjoy working with my supervisor who supports me a lot and I don’t want to give up,” Vitalina says. “So I’m trying to do everything I can to help myself and other students to get back to school as soon as possible.”