This PhD student will ride out China’s zero-COVID-19 policy

tianjin university
"I don’t have any other way except to patiently wait for the resumption of student visas being issued in China," says Yasir Iqbal. Source: Yasir Iqbal

Yasir Iqbal is a PhD candidate at Tianjin University. His passion for research in information and communication engineering comes from his deep interest in human-to-human communications through signals. 

After spending countless hours scouring the web, this Pakistani native came to the conclusion that China is a reputable location for pursuing his PhD in the field. This ultimately led him to get in touch with Tianjin University, where he was fortunate enough to gain full admissions, along with a fully-funded scholarship to boot. 

The ongoing travel restrictions in China, however, has meant that Iqbal hasn’t been able to set foot on campus, which has inevitably left him feeling a bit frustrated. 

The 27-year-old is still hopeful that he will one day be able to enter the country. We speak to him about his studies and what backup plan he has:

Walk us through your area of study — why did you choose to study this topic at Tianjin University?

Reading books about human-to-human communication through signals got my attention to then pursue a PhD in this research area. Additionally, artificial intelligence (AI) technology is very helpful in bringing accuracy to human-to-machine communication. 

This made me keen to study and work with deep learning techniques in the area of signal processing in my PhD. I chose to study this in China because of the highly qualified Chinese professors I discovered who have made great contributions in this study area. 

I began reaching out to the professors at Tianjin University and got a reply from Dr. Zhang Hao who is researching signal processing. He agreed to supervise my PhD research which made me apply to Tianjin University. Not only did I gain admission, but I also got a fully-funded CSC Scholarship to begin last year.

What’s been the toughest thing about studying remotely?

Everyone faces difficulties, especially coming from a poor socioeconomic country like Pakistan. When students from this country look for better opportunities, it’s tougher. 

After I did my master’s in electrical engineering in 2019, the job situation was dire in my home country which was made more challenging with the pandemic. At the time, I was feeling down so Tianjin University was the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Now, I’m taking online classes and doing online research activities with the university to help my career progress. 

What do you feel about China’s zero-COVID-19 policy? How do you think it will last?

The policy has saved millions of people in the country from COVID-19 and due to the variants, they’ve banned foreign students and this has left us frustrated. In my opinion, I don’t foresee an exact date on when the country will lift these restrictions and if they do, it might happen in the fall intake this year or spring next year.

Is Tianjin University providing you with enough support?

Tianjin University is providing full support to continue online studies. The administration and teachers are cooperative and know about our individual situations. 

For instance, if we tell them we have issues attending the online classes or exams due to electricity or internet problems, they give us alternatives. Having said this, I’m a little disappointed with the Pakistani government officials. 

Us —  BS, MSc and PhD students under engineering, medical and similar fields have no lab access which means we can’t perform experimental research and clinical practice. Besides this huge obstacle, our Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood haven’t discussed this with the Chinese authorities.

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.

What’s your backup plan for your PhD studies? 

My backup plan is to just wait for this whole thing to finish. I don’t have any other way except to patiently wait for the resumption of student visas being issued in China. Otherwise, I’ll have to look at another country to pursue my PhD. 

Any words of advice for students who want to pursue a degree abroad in China?

For foreign students who can’t handle online classes, I would advise waiting a year from now and in the meantime, applying for a job or educational opportunity elsewhere. Now is not the time to choose to begin your journey in China.