Sri Lankan group latest to arrive as China opens borders to Asian students

Sri Lankan group latest to arrive as China opens borders to Asian students

More Sri Lankan students are expected to follow the first batch that arrived in Tianji, China, on Friday. (Twitter via South China Morning Post photo)
More Sri Lankan students are expected to follow the first batch that arrived in Tianji, China, on Friday. (Twitter via South China Morning Post photo)

China is gradually allowing more students from Asian nations to return, over two years after closing its borders to most foreigners under a strict zero-Covid strategy. However, it is not clear when those from the West can also come back.

A group of 164 Sri Lankan medical students was the latest to arrive back in China, landing in Tianjin on Friday after being locked out by the coronavirus pandemic since early 2020.

Tweeting about their arrival on a "special" Sri Lankan Airlines chartered flight, the Chinese embassy said it would continue to work closely with authorities [in both countries] to help more students "return to their universities as soon as possible".

In April, the Sri Lankan embassy in Beijing said their Chinese counterparts in Colombo had "finalised two groups of students to return to China" and that more students were "being processed to return".

This came after another special chartered flight on Monday returned the first batch of Pakistani students to Xian, in northwestern Shaanxi province, according to Pakistan's The Express Tribune daily.

According to the Associated Press of Pakistan, the group of 90 will undergo 14 days of quarantine in Xian before returning to their universities in different Chinese cities.

Their return was part of a pilot programme agreed upon during a meeting last month between Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Bhutto Zardari made a special request for return of students for on-campus studies, the Pakistani foreign ministry said.

This comes as China remains the last major economy to still stick with what it calls a "dynamic zero-Covid" strategy, involving strict border controls and visa restrictions to keep imported cases at bay. However, the policy has sparked concerns over whether the country risks being cut off from a world moving to lift barriers for international travel.

There has also been mounting frustration among the half a million foreign students at Chinese universities, mostly from developing countries in Asia and Africa, who have been denied access to in-person classes after Beijing suspended visa processing in March 2020.

Foreign missions in China have made it a priority to raise the plight of their students. For instance, the return of Indian students was discussed at new ambassador Pradeep Kumar Rawat's first courtesy meeting with Foreign Minister Wang in Beijing on Wednesday. The Chinese side "attached importance" to their concerns, the Indian embassy said.

More than 23,000 Indian students, mostly studying medicine, are stuck back in their home country, and more than half want to return, Indian daily the Hindustan Times reported earlier this week.

The issue was also raised when Sayed Mohiuddin Sadat, the Taliban-appointed Afghan charge d'affaires in Beijing, hosted a meeting with Xu Hangtian, head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's South Asian Affairs Department.

"There was a lot of talk about the … return of Afghan students to Chinese universities. It is hoped that in the short term we will see positive developments in these areas," the Afghan embassy said in a tweet.

The latest arrivals chime with recent positive signs of Beijing relaxing the rules for foreign students to return.

In April, about 150 Russian students arrived on a chartered plane from Moscow, the first international students to be allowed in since August 2020, when a South Korean group was allowed to return. South Koreans make up 10%, or the largest proportion, of China's foreign student population.

Earlier this month, Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said Beijing had begun to accept the return of Thai students following an agreement in February.

However, it remains unclear if overseas students in the West can come back to China any time soon.

Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, said in May that "more American students would return to China in the coming few months", but did not give a timeline.

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