A resident walks by shuttered Communication University of China in Beijing, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.

Thousands of foreign students enrolled in Chinese universities await permission to return

In late 2019, nearly half a million foreign students in China — mostly from Africa and other parts of Asia — were studying at Chinese universities. Then the pandemic struck, disrupting in-person studies. Nearly 2 1/2 years later, many are still prevented from returning to China.  

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Harinitesh Selvakumar, 21, chose to study at Hebei Medical University in China because he said it was more affordable than a private university in India, his home country. 

Just a few months after arriving in 2019, when news started spreading about a virus from Wuhan, Harinitesh said he decided to fly home for winter break and wait it out.

“We had expected that we would stay out of the university for two to three months, but we hadn’t expected it would be this long,” he said. 

More than 2 1/2 years later, he is still taking classes online. 

Harinitesh is one of hundreds of thousands of international students whose futures are on the line as they wait to get permission to return to their universities in China. 

He wants to return to China to finish his degree, but his university has yet to receive the green light from the government to allow foreign students to return. 

Harinitesh said he’s worried that his career goal of becoming a doctor is getting derailed. 

“Just getting the theory knowledge is not going to help you treat a patient in real life,” he said. “You need to have that clinical and physical experience, too. That’s what we’re lacking and that’s what we’re striving to get back to.”

Curtis Chin is a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and chair of the Milken Institute Asia Center. Chin heard about the students’ predicament on Twitter where many have been using the hashtag #takeusbacktoChina to call attention to their situation.

“These are not rich kids necessarily,” he said. “Sometimes, the family has sacrificed to put a young person into university. And clearly, they might have liked them to have gone to the US but China provided a closer, cost-effective and still competitive education. So, they put their hopes in China.”

Students from some countries have had an easier time getting permission to return, he said — for reasons that remain unclear. 

“China has wanted to position itself as a rival, as an equal to other places like the United States and Europe and Australia that have been seen as sources of education, as a way to move up. In many ways, China’s closing its borders to international students has been a big soft-power failure.”

Many students said they’re struggling to attend classes from different time zones or on shaky internet connections. Students in Pakistan have reported that the flooding there has made it difficult for them to continue their classes. 

Last month, there were signs of change. The Chinese government announced that they were lifting the entry ban for international students

Lyn Lim, a second-year design student from Malaysia, was able to finally arrive in China.

“It’s a very long journey,” she said. “I’m quite lucky — that’s what I’ve been telling myself all this way. It takes so much work to get into China and then, after you get into China, you have to do so much more to be to get into school and attend classes.”

She flew back on a charter flight of 300 students. The Malaysian government helped pay for it. Most students aren’t so lucky, though.

Purushottam Subedi, from Nepal, is a second-year civil engineering student who said the price of flights back to China is now 10 times what it was before the pandemic.

“There’s one problem,” he said. “That’s too expensive.”

Many students agree. Students in Pakistan have been active on Twitter, calling for the national airline to reduce ticket prices. When students are allowed to return to China, they are expected to cover flight costs and up to 21 days of mandatory quarantine in a hotel. That can amount to thousands of dollars.

And despite the government’s announcement, many students on Twitter say nothing has changed. Their universities still won’t give them the permission letters they need to reapply for student visas.

Philip Altbach, a professor at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, said that unlike American universities, Chinese universities do not depend on tuition from international students — many of whom are on full scholarship. Bringing them back is simply not a priority, he said. 

“All of this, like everything in China, is top down,” he said. “So, if the authorities say, 'Hey, guys, do it,' it'll take them some time, but they'll do it. The policies could change.”

Until then, he said, international students enrolled in Chinese universities will be forced to make a difficult choice. They can hope for the best and keep waiting for a chance to return to China. Or, they just give up and start their college education all over again somewhere else. 

Related: Shanghai sees exodus as people flee China's lockdown woes

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