China gears up for return of international students

China is gearing up for the return of foreign students shut out of the country and their university courses for over two years since COVID-19 border restrictions were imposed in 2020, after a number of Chinese embassies this week announced that overseas nationals with valid study visas for degree-level courses can enter the country.

Students recently accepted for admission to Chinese universities will also be able to apply for visas, China’s embassies in Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines and Vietnam said in their notifications. Several of these notifications indicated that the “new rules for students” would take effect from 24 August.

Tourists are still barred from entering China.

Similar notices of what the Chinese authorities are describing as a “new visa policy” were communicated by Chinese embassies in Algeria, Iran, Lebanon and some European and Latin American countries. In all, some 57 countries are included in the “new visa policy” relating to students returning to China.

The coordinated embassy notifications mark a shift away from the ad hoc announcements often made during diplomatic visits by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to countries in the Asian region.

In May and June a number of flights for groups of students from ‘friendly’ countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand were organised, but this was criticised as not amounting to a return-to-normal policy for international students.

Zero-COVID policy stays in place

Chinese officials insisted this week that welcoming students back to China did not mean China has abandoned its zero-COVID policy, with international arrivals still required to abide by the country’s epidemic prevention policies. These include adhering to internal quarantine, harsh lockdowns, which can be imposed suddenly on campuses, and repeat-testing policies which can disrupt the normal running of classes.

While the coordinated announcements have prompted a flurry of student applications for visas, students in countries like India, where thousands of students are waiting to return, said via social media they were concerned that they will not be able to get the documents needed for the visa application, including ‘no objection certificates’ (NOCs), from Chinese universities in time for the start of the university semester this month.

Some Chinese regions also require quarantine periods, with quarantine expenses paid by the students themselves, as well as vaccines and proof of negative tests for COVID before students can return to campus.

In late June, the quarantine period for international arrivals was shortened from 21 days to 10 days: seven days of centralised quarantine and three days of home quarantine.

Lu Hongzhou, head of the Shenzhen Third People’s Hospital, was quoted by China’s official Global Times newspaper this week saying a further reduction of the quarantine period for inbound travellers in the short term is unlikely.

A university in Hubei province, which is collating information on international students wishing to return to China, indicated that international students currently abroad could return to China in October or November, according to Chinese social media – an indication that international students still face weeks of online study even if semester start dates are shifted.

Pre-COVID, universities in Hubei province became a magnet for foreign students after they began offering medical degrees taught in English.

Online classes have also been put in place by universities in areas where the semester start date has been delayed by COVID prevention measures.

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