China signals coming return for international students

Embassies in dozens of countries now accepting visa applications, but many students still in the dark over anticipated move

August 31, 2022

After months of slow progress, China’s authorities appear to be preparing for a widespread return of international students.

“Welcome news! International students can now return to China to resume their studies,” wrote Ma Hui, China’s ambassador to Cuba, in a recent post to Twitter.

The message comes as China readies to ease its Covid restrictions on foreign travellers after two and a half years. By 31 August, it is slated to scrap current requirements that visitors to the country report the results of a nucleic acid test, their infection status and vaccination dates, the Chinese state-run Global Times reported.

For months, education analysts have been predicting a slow and steady return by some 450,000 foreign learners waiting to get back to the country. While July brought indications that some small groups of overseas students were returning, so far, these have been an exception rather than the rule.

The latest official messages contain the strongest signs yet that Beijing is readying for a mass return of international students.

By the end of August, roughly two dozen countries – including the recent additions of India, Malaysia and Thailand – had received permission for their students to apply for a Chinese X1 study visa, according to the HE consultancy China Admissions.

“Many students on an X1 visa have already been contacted by their universities, or will be contacted in the following weeks. In addition to the embassies that have already opened student X1 visa applications, we expect all [Chinese] embassies to open their student visa services again in a gradual and coordinated manner,” the group said in a recent post.

Richard Coward, its founder and CEO, told Times Higher Education “it’s a very positive sign but we still need to be cautious”, with students needing permission to return from their university and embassy, and mobility levels as yet “far from pre-Covid levels”. 

A representative of the student lobby group China International Student Union said that “at the moment embassies have started accepting student visa applications and most schools, although not all, have issued return certificates to students [and] others in the process”. 

Amid the excitement, there was also confusion among students. On social media, dozens of them reported being in the dark about when they could come back.

“My university didn’t [get] any information about overseas students returning,” wrote one.

Another of those hoping to return claimed his school had said he would need to wait another two months before being allowed entry into China.

Ji Rong, a counsellor in China’s ministry of foreign affairs, urged students to “keep patience and faith”.  

“Dear students, I’ve got many requests for helping [with] university documents and understand your worries. What I’ve learnt from MOE [the Ministry of Education] is Chinese universities welcome you back and need some time to get prepared since [the] new study policy [was] just announced,” she wrote on 23 August.

But even with patience, those hoping to return may be seeking reassurance on concerns over a more tangible issue: money.  

A Pakistani medical student talking to THE said that even if he were issued a visa with immediate effect, he would be unable to pay upwards of £2,000 for a flight.

“The flights to China these days are less affordable. No one can afford to buy it,” he said.

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