Return to universities in China: Two men are standing in front of the Chinese and Pakistani flag
Pakistani students have rallied behind the hashtag #PMSavePakStudentsOfChina on Twitter, appealing to Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) to negotiate for their return during his four-day visit in China. Source: Yukie Nishizawa/Pool/AFP

Now entering its third year, China’s unrelenting international travel ban has locked out nearly half a million international students since the border shutdown began in March 2020. As all eyes are set on Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Pakistani students are rallying behind the hashtag #PMSavePakStudentsOfChina on Twitter as part of their ongoing fight to return to universities in China. The hashtag went viral this week and was trending on Pakistani Twitter on Feb. 2, 2022.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived on Thursday in China’s capital city for a four-day visit, which includes attending the opening ceremony for the world’s biggest winter sports event on Feb. 4, 2022. Students in Pakistan are appealing for the prime minister to leverage his presence in China to talk about the possibility of an imminent return.

“Pakistani students studying in China have been waiting to go back. China has its own policy, but your voice is heard in Chinese power corridors,” writes international investment banker Mir Mohammad Alikhan in a Twitter post. “Please ask the Chinese Premier on your visit to allow them back into China.”

“There’s been no official news that anyone from the Pakistani government has discussed our situation with Chinese government officials. There are currently 6,000 Pakistani students affected by such travel bans so these issues need to be discussed by government bodies,” claims Yasir Iqbal, a PhD candidate at Tianjin University.

Like many other international students who are still stuck offshore, Pakistani students — most of whom are studying science-based courses — attending classes online comes with a set of challenges that diminish their overall learning experience. The situation is even more pressing for medical students, whose degrees will not be recognised for professional practice in the absence of hands-on practical work.

“We have not even seen a cadaver,” an Indian medical student was quoted saying to The Hindu. “And the university’s plan, when we return to China, is for us to practice with a cadaver in the morning and then learn live surgeries in the evening. How is this even possible?”

Return to universities in China: Will 2022 see the travel ban lifted?

Return to universities in China: A worker sprays disinfectant at a staircase in a train station

Earlier speculations of China’s border relaxation following the Winter Olympics in Beijing seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, following reports of Omicron transmissions in several Chinese cities. Source: Jewel Samad / AFP

Since China’s travel ban came into effect, thousands of international students worldwide have taken to social media to express their frustrations through hashtags such as #TakeUsBacktoChina and #TakeUsBacktoSchool. Some have given up hope of ever returning to universities in China and are transferring to more travel-friendly countries. Most, however, do not have any other recourse but to wait for China’s borders to reopen.

That could very well take another year or two before it materialises. According to Reuters, China aims to expand its domestic flights and restore international air travel between 2023 to 2025, which could mean another year of academic limbo for overseas students.

The situation is looking even more grim with China’s new wave of Omicron cases in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, which placed authorities high on alert ahead of the Lunar New Year and Winter Olympics. Public health experts say the new variant poses the biggest threat to the country’s zero-COVID strategy, according to The Guardian.

In 2021, two universities in China — Duke Kunshan University and New York University Shanghai  — had sent out emails notifying students of a possible return for the new semester. To this date, however, only South Korean students have been greenlighted for re-entry into China based on a special arrangement between the two nations.