Indian students still unable to return to China even as Covid-19 border curbs ease

Travellers in Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport this month. China has since April gradually permitted entry to students. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BANGALORE - After waiting for more than two years to return to Jinan, China, to complete her medical degree, fourth-year Indian student Rachita Kurmi, 21, received good news last Saturday (Aug 13).

Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong told the press that the Chinese government was "working intensively for the return of foreign students to China", and that some had "already returned".

China shut its borders to foreign visitors in 2019 as part of its Covid-19 restrictions, and foreign students who had left the country have had a long wait to re-enter.

Since April, the country has gradually permitted entry to students from Russia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana and Zimbabwe, among others. Last week, one of 100 Pakistani students who got permits to return documented her journey back to her China university on YouTube.

But more than 23,000 Indian students - the biggest foreign contingent - await their turn.

"The relevant departments in China and India have been in contact and made progress on this. The responsible departments in both countries will stay in close communication and work for the early return of the first batch of Indian students," said Mr Sun.

The ambassador's statement brings hope but little clarity.

Ms Kurmi, a Shandong University medical student who has been doing online classes from her home town Mumbai, said: "My university notified me this week that online classes for the next semester will start soon. Does this mean I don't get to return for yet another semester?"

A Telegram group "Indian Students in China", created in 2019 by stranded students to share information and strategise about putting pressure on the authorities, has been abuzz this week with desperate questions from its 5,500 members.

Some students from Zhengzhou, Hunan Normal and Wuhan Universities have received certificates from their universities stating that the authorities did not object to their return as long as they followed pandemic protocols. Chinese visa application centres in India require such No-Objection Certificates (NOCs) to process a student's visa.

Those who received NOCs had other frustrating obstacles. A 23-year-old Zhengzhou University medical student, who did not want to be named, could not apply for a visa because the centre in Delhi, where he lives, is not accepting applications for student visas yet.

The visa centre in Mumbai, while accepting applications, allows appointments only on Fridays - which Ms Kurmi found are booked up till November.

Thousands of Indian students are still awaiting NOCs, even as they attend online classes and sit for exams, paying the full annual tuition fees of 300,000 to 500,000 rupees (S$5,200 to S$8,700).

Dozens of students told The Straits Times that they were perplexed by why some universities sent NOCs while others did not, and concerned about how they will return as international flights to China are still infrequent and expensive.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to ST's queries about whether soured diplomatic relations had contributed to the students' plight.

However, Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar has admitted in public forums that India-China relations are in "a very difficult phase".

As the two countries tussle over the border, the Indian government has banned dozens of Chinese apps, charged Chinese smartphone giants with tax evasion, and some leaders have encouraged boycotts of China-made goods.

Ms Kurmi said India's ban on VPNs and Chinese app WeChat left students "barely able to communicate with teachers in China", forcing them to resort to e-mail and Microsoft Teams that their professors were not as familiar with.

"Indians are a majority in any foreign class in China. Till now, we thought our number is our strength, and our return will be facilitated. But maybe our numbers are actually a liability," said Ms Kurmi.

In March, Minister Jaishankar met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to facilitate the return of Indian students. "We hope China will take a non-discriminatory approach since it involves the future of many young people," he had said then.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.