Coronavirus forces foreign students in China to choose: Stay or go

Dexter Lensing, who was studying in China, works on his laptop in Belmont, North Carolina, on Feb 10, 2020.
Dexter Lensing, who was studying in China, works on his laptop in Belmont, North Carolina, on Feb 10, 2020.PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Word came from home via hurried e-mails and instant messages to campuses across the country: Leave China now.

Mr Dexter Lensing listened. China had just been stricken by a coronavirus that so far has killed more than 1,000 people and ground much of the country to a virtual halt. The doctoral student was one of nearly half a million foreigners studying at universities in China who were forced to choose whether to stay or leave.

For decades, students like him have bridged language, politics and culture to help close the distance between China and the rest of the world. Mr Lensing in particular was drawn to China by its opaque political system, in which decisions are made in the shadows and people in power can rise and fall with the eddies of Beijing's palace intrigue.

Now Mr Lensing is one of likely thousands of others who are wondering when or whether they will have an opportunity to study in China again.

"I don't know if I've ever been so disappointed in my life," said Mr Lensing, 33, who is now in Belmont, North Carolina, with his sister. In his final academic year at Georgia State University, he worries he will not have a chance to return. His most valuable possessions, he said, remain in a dormitory in the northern Chinese city of Harbin.

The coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,000 people in China, has temporarily severed many of the ties between the country and the global community. For many Chinese students abroad, that means worrying about family at home and, in some cases, enduring unwanted attention from classmates.

For many foreign students studying in China, the outbreak has frozen or even ended their opportunities to study a vast and complicated country. The severing comes at a fraught time for China's relations with the world as it seeks to build itself up as a counterweight to US global influence.

The effect could be particularly significant when it comes to the United States. Many of the young American students who travelled to China in the 1980s when China began to open up went on to become journalists, business leaders and politicians who helped connect the two countries.

But student exchanges were already falling, and educational partnerships have been under pressure by free speech and geopolitical issues. The number of American students studying in China totalled about 11,600 as of 2018, down more than 2 per cent compared with the year before.

"It's a metaphor for the decoupling that is going on in the high technology, trade and investment realm, although for totally different reasons," said Mr Orville Schell, director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. "All of those trends represent a wrenching of the fabric that was weaving a more cosmopolitan side of China."

Not all students have fled. Some were stuck, like a group of Nigerian students and teachers at the universities in Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak. The government of Pakistan has told about 800 other students to stay in Wuhan for fear that their country's healthcare system cannot handle their return.

Some, like Ms Kathy Song, chose to stay. Ms Song, a China studies and social sciences double major at New York University Shanghai, has taken up residence with her uncle, aunt and young cousin, who live in Beijing.

New York University Shanghai student Kathy Song learns Chinese calligraphy from her uncle in his apartment in Beijing on Jan 31, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Ms Song, 19, who speaks Mandarin and practiced during summer holidays in China visiting relatives, chose to study in China because she believes that, as an American-born Chinese woman, she can help to dispel misconceptions on both sides.

"China is the world's biggest developing country," she said, "and I believe its relationship with the US is going to be one of the most important for this century."

Those who left China have little to do but wait.


"I live far away, and it's not easy to buy tickets and plan when to go back to China," said Mr Diego Rocha, 31, who is in his second year of an MBA at Tsinghua-MIT.

Mr Rocha, who is now home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, said that if graduation in the spring is delayed, he will have a harder time getting a visa to stay and find a job in China. During the final semester, business students are partnered with a local company, something that is now up in the air.

Some students were savvy about China's history with outbreaks. Government officials initially hid the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) 17 years ago, worsening the spread and raising questions about Beijing's transparency on matters of global safety.

Ms Kerrie Wong, 33, is in her second year of her MBA at Tsinghua-MIT with Mr Rocha. Like him, she stayed in China after the first year of study, even though it is not mandatory.

But Jan 1, when there were just a few reports of people falling ill, her mother called from Boston.

"She was telling me that I need to get out now," Ms Wong said. She and her parents had lived in Hong Kong during the Sars crisis, which killed nearly 300 people in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. She flew out of Beijing on Jan 7.

She will need to return to China to give her thesis oral defence, which was originally scheduled for April or May. Still, she didn't regret her decision.

"The worst fear is that, as a foreigner, when the news is not as transparent as Western news, there is always going to be an information lag," she said. "I'd rather be safe than sorry."