For many, it has already been a year since they have set foot in the country after the timing of the Covid-19 outbreak coincided with Chinese New Year and many had taken advantage of the holidays to travel.

With borders closed to them and very little official communication about when they might be allowed back, a petition to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs received over 11,000 signatures within three days of being posted.

“At the beginning we felt like everything was a bit scattered,” ‘Emma’, one of the China International Student Union organisers, said of trying to campaign for clearer messaging from the government.

“We need to come together and make our collective voice heard”

“But as times got harder, we realised that it’s not something we can do individually. So we need to come together and make our collective voice heard.”

While much of the social media campaign is taking place on Twitter and Instagram – both of which are banned in China, although the Chinese government and most universities have an active presence on at least Twitter – attempts were made to use Weibo to campaign but the idea was ultimately abandoned due to abusive responses and doxxing.

Universities and other stakeholders have urged patience from international students but, with the borders open to some visa categories, all students except those from South Korea have been left out. While there are bans on people from certain countries, the border is open to businessman and work visa holders who obtain a PU invitation letter from the government.

Students from NYU Shanghai were also exempt and able to return last year. A spokesperson said this was “a test case for the safe return of international students” done last fall.

“Just Guangzhou Baiyun Airport handled 43 million passengers in 2020,” Emma however noted, referencing the recent announcement that the airport has been named the busiest in 2020 globally.

“I’m not sure why they can’t handle a few hundred thousand students.”

“I’m not sure why they can’t handle a few hundred thousand students”

The China International Student Union advocates approaches such as allowing those who have been vaccinated to return and initiating staggered returns prioritising those in their final year or on practical courses.

“I think they’re putting us at the least priority. They’re putting us together with tourists,” said ‘Rajat’, another student who has been outside the country for over a year now even though many of his possessions – including his laptop – remain in China.

“We are just telling them that we are going to listen to you, your protocols, your rules. Just call us back, give us some hints and we’re going to follow you.”

The issue is made more pressing by low quality online teaching and moves by countries to restrict acceptance of online learning for medical courses.

The Pakistan Medical Commission for instance now requires provisional license applicants to provide copies of passport pages that prove they were abroad while studying. Similar measures have also been brought in in at least two Indian states.

“They upload the videos on this Chinese app called Chaoxing. They just put that video and the link stays for 12 hours. So within 12 hours, you can watch the class video and make your notes,” said Rajat.

Students at several universities have said their online classes amounted to little more than being sent pre-recorded messages or even powerpoints.

“What they’re having is not online classes,” noted another student who runs the Instagram account for the union.

He added that there is some concern about the response from the government and fears that speaking out could result in visa problems, hence why most students The PIE News spoke to wished to remain anonymous.

“The Chinese government is not like the UK government or the American government. It is quite different. So you’ve got to be very careful with them,” he said.

However, there are hopes that the China International Student Union will become a permanent group even after Covid-19 which could help address issues such unscrupulous agents, as well as providing a greater support network and more information for current and prospective students.

“In China, what we have is international students’ unions in each school. There is not a student union for all the students,at the different universities in China,” he said.

“It is not going to end with a Covid-19. We plan to keep it running.”

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