International university students wait as China remains closed to them

International university students wait as China remains closed to them

People wearing protective masks walk on a street in Shanghai on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)
People wearing protective masks walk on a street in Shanghai on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)

HONG KONG: Faisal Hisyam Muhammad had nothing but superlatives for China. He liked the culture. He always wanted to learn Mandarin. He loved how Shanghai developed into the megalopolis it is today.

"I've been to China before, and I just fell in love with it," the 24-year-old said.

He was excited to have received an offer in 2019 to study in a master's programme in marine science at the prestigious Tongji University in Shanghai.

After spending his first six months honing his Chinese and flying home to Indonesia to visit his family in January last year, he was shut out of China and is spending half his days working as a tutor to make ends meet after his Chinese government stipend was cut.

He and nearly half a million other international students have been locked out of China since March 2020, when the country closed its borders to most foreigners as the pandemic swept across the world.

Many have had to work part-time to support themselves and their families while struggling with classes several time zones away, often delivered through patchy internet connections.

While South Korean students have been allowed to return, as were students from some international universities, hundreds of thousands of students from South and Southeast Asia are still waiting for their turn, as strict border restrictions remain part and parcel of China's zero-Covid policy.

The Chinese government has repeatedly said that it attaches great importance to them continuing studies in China, but with the Omicron variant spreading fast and early evidence suggesting it could evade natural immunity and increase risks of reinfection, their return might still be a long way away.

Faisal had relied on his 3,000-yuan (US$470) monthly stipend from his Chinese government scholarship, but he stopped receiving it in March and said authorities had told universities to stop issuing them. The Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

"So I opened tutoring classes," he said. "I teach students from high schools and universities. That's how I get money once the scholarship stopped."

Every day, he studies on his laptop from 8am until noon and teaches students maths, physics, chemistry, Python and MATLAB programming languages in the afternoon.

The additional workload started to take its toll after he started to write his thesis, which he plans to defend next July.

The university told him privately it would pay him the stipend in bulk after graduation but did not make a public announcement.

"I cannot go back to China any time soon," he said. "I'm also not expecting anything, because we have been expecting and then we got disappointed many times."

Chinese government scholars receive a monthly stipend of 2,500 to 3,500 yuan and have their tuition and accommodation fees paid for. The stipends are suspended if a student leaves China for more than 15 days.

In 2018, a total of 492,185 students from 196 territories studied in mainland China, of whom 63,041, or 13%, received Chinese government scholarships, according to the ministry's latest available figures.

China recently said that students from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries would be prioritised for returning to China, but no details have been given.

Uncertainty over when China will lift border restrictions also stopped Rizwan Ali from taking a job at his former company after his stipend was suspended.

"I talked to them again that I want to rejoin my job," the student from Pakistan's Punjab province said. "They said you're pursuing your master's degree. We don't know when China will allow you [to return] and you [might] again leave us and go to China. So we will not accept you until you complete your degree."

Ali quit his job in 2019 as a network engineer in the capital Islamabad to study for a master's in computer science at Shandong University in eastern China. The 28-year-old has since relied on his parents for daily necessities.

"They are managing, but it's hard," he said.

With the stipend, Ali could have set up a smart lab and bought machines to run experiments essential for completing his research.

In Singapore, the only thing stopping Hyma Ratala, 20, from quitting her six-year medical programme is the three years she has already spent at Sichuan University in China's southwest.

Her laboratory classes were conducted virtually, but the VPN software required to connect to the app slowed the connection to the livestream for some classmates so badly they had to watch playbacks once the classes had finished.

Next year, Ratala will start her fourth year, which is when she will begin her clinical practice. Being stranded outside China means she can only experience her clinical placement behind a screen.

"I don't know how it's going to work out," she said. "For clinical knowledge, we have to be there. We should be more exposed to hospitals and on-hand cases and all. But right now, I don't see a way."

Medical councils in countries such as India, Pakistan and Thailand have said they will not recognise clinical practice conducted online, raising questions about whether students such as Ratala will be able to practise.

"That's most of the big fear factor right now," she said.

More than 140,000 international students from South and Southeast Asia studied in China in 2018, with Thailand and Pakistan being the second- and third-largest sources of such students overall behind South Korea.

These students could be seen as "para-diplomats" who advanced Chinese interests and foreign policy in their home countries, said Benjamin Mulvey, a postdoctoral fellow at the Education University of Hong Kong, who researches international students in mainland China.

"That's kind of the main rationale of the Chinese government for recruiting international students," he said.

A 2018 Education Ministry document said universities should organise activities to let them "experience China's national situation and culture".

A notice from the ministry's Communist Party committee from last year was more explicit, saying: "Every unit should foster exchange and friendship between Chinese and foreign students, make international students better understand and agree more with China's development, and make them tell China's story well and spread the voice of China."

Mulvey said he was doubtful of whether such soft power goals could be met through international education regardless of China's border restrictions, but not allowing students to return for nearly two years had left a negative impression.

"It's not just the lack of human-to-human interaction which is a problem, but it's also the students are so frustrated, and they feel like they're actually being treated badly and being neglected," he said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not directly respond to whether border restrictions could hamper China's diplomacy and cultural exchange or say what measures it had taken this year to arrange for international students to resume their education in China.

But it said: "China fully understands the urgency of international students to return to China to resume their studies. We are planning for what is required to control infections and actively studying plans to gradually arrange for international students with needs to come to China."

The country could not close its borders forever, said Faisal, from Indonesia.

"You can ask us to do anything, like PCR tests or vaccination or anything," he said.

China's Ministry of Health declined to say what length of quarantine for the students or epidemic control measures their home countries need to impose for students to return, and told the South China Morning Post to refer queries to the Ministry of Education, which did not respond to requests for comment.

"Quarantine, one month, two months, I don't care," Faisal said, "as long as you can go back to China because everyone is frustrated."

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