student survey
CISU’s recent student survey gave some insights into what students have been experiencing due to China’s border closure. Source: Wang Zhao/AFP

China International Student Union’s (CISU) recent student survey, “How the China Travel Ban has Affected the Lives of International Students”, gave some insights into what students have been experiencing due to China’s prolonged border closure. Many respondents have claimed that their mental and physical health has declined because of China’s travel ban.  

CISU is an independent representative body of international students enrolled at universities and institutions in China. They have been campaigning for students’ return.

“Two years on many thousands of students are still waiting to return to their studies or start their course in person for the first time,” they said. “We wanted to investigate the effects and feelings of students over this time.”

Student survey: Many are depressed

CISU received 1,473 responses from students from India, Pakistan and Morocco, among other countries. The survey was held from Jan. 31, 2022 to  Feb. 18, 2022.

In response to the question: “How long have you been waiting to enter China?”, 56% of respondents said they have been waiting for over two years. The majority of survey respondents were between the 18-23 age range.

More than half of respondents (53%) said they have experienced “serious mental health issues” to the question, “Because of the China ban I have…”; 47% have been unable to complete their university credits and 37% said they have been unable to support themselves. 

Twenty three percent said they lost the opportunity to do an exchange semester.

Students added that they have not been able to gain practical experience for their MBBS programme and experience less sleep due to the time difference between China and their home countries.

In another question, respondents reported feelings of hopelessness, depression, anxiety and stress to the question, “Over the past month I’ve experienced…”. More than 50% of students said that their mental health has significantly declined due to China’s travel ban.

One student commented: “I have postponed my entire life: I can’t get a job I want for fear I have to quit in a few months. I can’t make long-term plans because I have to think about my master degree and whether or not I can go to China. I can’t enjoy studying what I want because I have to wake up at 3 a.m. and act like it’s normal. I have to study and work full-time because I don’t receive the scholarship.”

Another student said, “China has shattered all my future plans after graduation. I still (sic) in the dark whether my degree will be accepted by any medical institution and whether I will be eligible working as a doctor one day. 4 semesters online! There’s no way a medical institution will recruit us as doctors one day.” 

Because of the China travel ban, 29% of respondents said that their physical health has significantly declined. One student said, “I have been taking online classes, which due to the time difference, begin at 2 a.m. every weekday for me.”

student survey

China has a zero-COVID-19 policy, which has kept most international students locked out of the country. Source: Greg Baker/AFP

Some students wouldn’t recommend China as a study abroad destination

In speaking about their opinion on China, one student said in CISU’s student survey: “It’s sad they don’t prioritise students for almost two years now. We pay our fees as usual for just online classes which seems like a big waste of time and money.” 

Despite this, not many students have cancelled their plans to continue studying in China; 27.5% said they may consider cancelling while almost 26% said they will not be cancelling their studies in China. Almost 47% of students do not recommend China as a study or travel destination to their friends and family; in comparison, only 25% said they would.

Before the pandemic, China launched a concerted effort to internationalise its higher education by admitting foreign students in record numbers and issuing generous scholarships as part of President Xi Jinping’s move to advance its “people-to-people” initiative to boost China’s image in global diplomacy.

Curtis Chin, former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank; and inaugural Asia Fellow of the Milken Institute, previously told Study International: “China’s border shutdown has been a soft power failure for the mainland Chinese government. 

“Foreign students who might have taken to heart China’s rhetoric of enduring friendship and looked warmly on China as a trusted educational destination of choice have had to face the harsh reality of closed Chinese borders. Beijing’s pursuit of a ‘zero COVID’ strategy has meant dashed hopes and upended lives for thousands of students.”