China reopens to foreign students after more than two years

Most of China’s students came from South Korea, followed by Thailand and Pakistan

Students wearing face masks walk out of a venue of the annual national “gaokao” university entrance exam, which was postponed in the city due to the Covid-19 outbreak, in Shanghai, China, on July 7, 2022. (Photo: Reuters)

China is opening the door to foreign students for the first time in more than two years, easing restrictions on their entry imposed after the outbreak of Covid-19.

Foreign nationals holding a valid Chinese residence permit for study or an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) business travel card will be allowed to enter China starting Wednesday, the nation’s United States embassy said in a statement posted on WeChat late Tuesday. Similar statements were made by China’s embassies in Japan and India.

While the country has been allowing some students to enter on an ad-hoc basis for some time, the move shows Beijing is attempting to normalize aspects of the economy — while holding fast to its Covid Zero approach. Anyone entering China still faces one of the most intensive pandemic border regimes left globally, with mandatory traveller quarantines still in place.

Allowing international students to return does not mean China has relaxed its strict coronavirus control measures, or that the government has abandoned its dynamic zero-Covid policy, the state-run Global Times reported. Lu Hongzhou, a health commentator and head of the Third People’s Hospital of Shenzhen, said that further shortening the quarantine period for inbound travellers in the short term is unlikely, the report added.

China still has the world’s toughest entry requirements, even after easing quarantine rules in June. Arriving travellers need to spend seven days in an isolation facility and then monitor their health at home for a further three days. Flights to the country are also limited.

The country welcomed 492,185 foreign students in 2018, low compared to the more than 1 million enrolled in the 2019-2020 school year in the US, where international education is a significant industry. Most of China’s students came from South Korea, followed by Thailand and Pakistan.

– Wave easing –

China’s latest Covid wave — which triggered a raft of lockdowns and restrictions across several provinces — appears to be easing as flareups in tourist hotspots seeded by summer vacation travel ebb. The nation reported 1,748 infections for Monday, down from a peak of more than 3,400 a week ago.

The original epicentre of the virus, when it emerged among market stall holders in the city of Wuhan, China managed to wipe out cases for vast swathes of 2020 and 2021, before being challenges by more contagious variants. Still, President Xi Jinping’s administration remains wedded to Covid Zero, with Beijing unwilling to endure the scale of death seen in other nations.

Officially, China has seen just over 5,200 fatalities since the pandemic started, versus more than 1 million in the US, a central fact in officials’ rhetoric about the superiority of the country’s approach.