As the country continues to witness sporadic Covid-19 outbreaks, China has been loath to reopen its borders. Mistrust in China of other countries and their vaccination status is sky-high. Authorities are terrified of allowing foreigners—who have been projected in Chinese media as rather blasé about Covid-19 precautions—and incurring public backlash.
During the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in China in December 2019, some Nepali students enrolled at Chinese universities were already in Nepal for their winter vacation. Others soon followed suit. But nearly 19 months after leaving China over 3,000 students are still stuck in Nepal with neither Nepali nor Chinese officials informing them when they can return.
Despite the emergence of various variants of coronavirus, people around the world have resumed their daily lives by following health protocols. Even international students, who had returned home from different countries, went back to their colleges and universities months ago. But that’s not the case with Chinese university students.
On July 1, ApEx had reported on the dire situation of Nepali students stuck at home. Unfortunately, their status remains much the same. An international online protest, #TakeUsBackToChina, which was gaining traction at the time, also seems to have fizzled out.
International students have sent open letters to President Xi Jinping to be allowed back in, and signed a petition seeking UN intervention. In Nepal, too, students have repeatedly written to resident Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi, to no avail.
In 2010, President Xi had labeled international students as “forever, a friend of China”. But his government’s action suggests otherwise, these stranded students say.
Rista Deuba, a second-year engineering student and a Chinese Scholarship Council beneficiary, fears her scholarship may be at risk. The scholarship has to be periodically renewed, but it has been 19 months since the last renewal. “In these months, I had to renew it twice but I couldn’t. I don’t know if my scholarship is still valid.” Meanwhile, she has had to pay full fees; council officers assure her she will get the money back after the renewal.
Most Nepali students chose China because of its scholarship scheme. With that on the line, they are in a dilemma. Deuba’s colleague Monica Pudasaini says she would have studied in Nepal on full payment if she knew she had to pay to attend Chinese university. Courses in China are more expensive than they are in Nepal and those who were not expecting to pay are short of options.
Deuba, for instance, is more concerned about likely future payments instead of her classes. She wants Nepali officials to facilitate conversation with their Chinese counterparts. “I am only asking for assurance that my scholarship is secure, nothing else,” she adds. Without the scholarship, she is in no position to pay her full dues.
During the lockdown, some students have already completed their theoretical courses, while others still struggle online. Many need to return to their college soon to complete their internships and practical exams, which can’t be done online.
When Chinese authorities did not heed the students’ call, they had urged the Nepal government to send a diplomatic note to China to allow the students to return. Medical students of the 2015 and 2016 batches have announced protests, asking to be allowed to complete their internships in Nepal.
After waiting for 18 months, the 2014 batch was permitted to take up internships at Nepali hospitals, but others are still left in the lurch.
Dipendra Rauniyar, a member of the 2016 batch, says, “We are just asking for an internship, and even on that score, our government doesn’t care.” For over three weeks he and his batch-mates have been picketing the Nepal Medical Council. “Students from other countries are also stuck, but their respective governments have been helping them in every possible way,” he shares.
Similarly, another campaigner for the return of Nepali students, Roman Khatiwada, is disappointed at the Nepal government’s lack of initiative to secure their future. “Our seniors lost 18 months, almost 75 percent of their internship time. We don’t want to do that,” he adds. “Here we are ready to help the government meet the country’s health needs and yet they don’t listen to us.”
Even though China was the virus epicenter, its officials soon had the contagion under control. And as migrant workers were allowed into China from select countries, the hopes of students were raised as well. But then only South Korean students were allowed back into China.
Khatiwada’s Chinese friends inform him that the decision to bring back Koreans students was not a popular one in China, as they are now being accused of importing new Covid-19 cases. “All this means that I am not very hopeful of a swift return,” he adds.
Li Bin, the Vice-Minister of the National Health Commission in China, has noted in a press brief that Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Ruili have witnessed local clusters of the imported Delta variant. “The recent waves have reminded us we cannot relax our pandemic control measures,” he said. Chinese border restrictions could thus be in place for at least another year.
Rishab Mahato, another medical student, says, “This is a time of summer break at Chinese universities and it would thus have been the best time for us to return.” If students could enter China before September, they would have time for quarantine too before the start of their classes.
But Rauniyar reckons that is unlikely and suspects the earliest students like him could be recalled would be after the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which is in February. He was also told by his Chinese contacts that foreign students would be allowed back in when all the Chinese got their jabs.
Meanwhile, Greshes Acharya of the China University of Geosciences doesn’t know how to renew his visa. “It’s been a year since our visa expired, but there is no way to renew it,” he rues. Visa renewals require an offer letter from the university, which has been impossible to get.
Although Deuba has some hope, Pudasaini doesn’t think she will ever return to China and is already exploring alternatives in Nepal.
(The names of some students have been changed at their request)