Esmé Puzio / Daily Nexus

As thousands of Chinese international students begin to navigate their post-graduation paths, they find themselves facing more COVID-19 uncertainties than any other group on campus. While many of them want to travel back to their home country, where numerous supportive policies for returning international students are being implemented in many cities, they find it very challenging to do so. Often deemed as the privileged group in China due to their middle-class backgrounds, these international students find themselves marginalized by the COVID-19-related restrictions in their home country. 

When my friend Zhao, a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, boarded his flight from Seattle to Shanghai in late March, his flight had already been delayed by two months because of the “circuit-breaker” policy. This policy states that if there are over five passengers who tested positive on one flight, the flight will be canceled for a week. It was enacted in response to the Omicron surge in early 2022, leading many flights to mainland China to be canceled with little notice, disrupting students’ plans. It’s not just the flights departing from the U.S., but flights bound for mainland China from all over the world that have been impacted by the circuit-breaker policy as well. In March, a flight from Zurich to Shanghai was canceled 20 minutes before take-off, leaving hundreds of travelers stranded at the boarding gate. The uncertainty related to airline travel is only one of the many factors that continue to add stress to the international student community. 

As China continues to embrace the Zero Covid policy, most international travelers find it to be a huge hassle or even impossible to enter China. In addition to the flight availability issue, policies require international travelers to pay hundreds of dollars to get tested at least three times at designated facilities before boarding their flights. Although requirements vary from between regions in the U.S., it is common for travelers to get tested within one day of departure and get an antigen test on the day of the flight. Upon arrival, mandatory quarantine of at least 14 days at designated hotels is the norm.

Based on my personal experience in 2020 and Zhao’s experience in May 2022, you are unable to select either the price or location of this hotel, which may put an additional financial strain on travelers. After the mandatory quarantine period, additional quarantine periods are commonly necessary. Depending on your final destination, travelers may experience a total quarantine period of a month. These measures have put a halt to many international events happening in mainland China. For instance, the Olympic Council of Asia has recently announced that the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games 2022 has been postponed. With all the disruptions and uncertainties, these measures have not only impacted international students but also many domestic businesses and organizations that are engaging with the international community.

These students who are deemed to be invaluable human resources for their home country are now marginalized as both domestic policies and narratives do not seem to support them.

These measures have discouraged many Chinese students from going back home. I know students who bought masks and shipped them to mainland China in early 2020 when COVID-19 first broke out. And they feel disheartened due to how the domestic narratives and policies do not seem to take their interest into consideration, despite their contributions to the country during the early stages of the pandemic. 

These students have been categorized by many as “the privileged group” because of the opportunity to study abroad, which has been a rising trend since the last 20th century despite some fluctuations associated with the relationships between the U.S. and China. With over 300,000 Chinese international students in the U.S. in 2021, China sees these well-educated students with extensive cross-cultural experience as important talents to recruit. Therefore, many Chinese cities are offering incentives for international students to come back. In some cities, returning international students are able to buy a car without tax, while in other places, they offer a start-up fund for those who want to get a business going. However, these students are now stuck between two countries that have vastly different approaches to the pandemic, confused and exhausted as they navigate their way home. As of May 2022, many countries including the U.S. are lifting COVID restrictions, such as the mask mandate on airplanes. China, on the other hand, is still battling the worst COVID outbreak after 2020, especially in Shanghai. Regional lockdowns, mass testing and mask-wearing are still common practices in Chinese cities.

These students who are deemed to be invaluable human resources for their home country are now marginalized as both domestic policies and narratives do not seem to support them. We don’t know if these additional policies are efficient or not, but they will likely stay around for a while and continue to dishearten thousands of Chinese international graduates who are exploring their options after graduation. 

Barry Xu thinks that two different approaches to COVID-19 led to the marginalization of some of the most valuable human resources for China.