His counterpart “did not say when [students could start returning], but from what he told me, they want [the process to begin] as soon as possible”, Abdullah told local media.
However, the potentially good news for Malaysian students is somewhat dampened by statements having been made by other Chinese officials elsewhere that have so far failed to see the return of students to the country.
A similar story appeared in Bangladeshi media in July citing Yan Hualong, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka, as saying Bangladeshi students would get priority in returning to China. He claimed that Bangladeshi students still studying in China at institutions would also get priority for vaccinations.
Regular responses to media queries from government spokepersons also continue to reiterate that the Chinese government “attaches high importance” to the return of foreign students while also ensuring safety during the pandemic, despite students having been barred from entering the country for more than 20 months.
“It’s good to see that governments are seeing students and acknowledging our struggles”
“It’s good to see that governments are seeing students and acknowledging our struggles associated with the visa ban however there have been many instances where great importance has been attached to us and we would like to see actions rather than words to convey our importance,” the China International Student Union told The PIE.
The organisation is behind the #takeusbacktochina campaign, launched earlier in 2021.
Earlier in December, one of China’s top medical experts Zhong Nanshan proposed that normalcy could return in China if the Covid-19 fatality rate dropped to 0.1% and the reproduction rate between 1 and 1.5.
But for students, this lack of coordinated messaging from embassies has further added to the stress they are currently facing. In August, the Chinese Embassy in Armenia posted on its website that it would be resuming the processing on student visas, before removing the sentence regarding students.
The Ministry of Education’s Chinese Scholarship Council is also continuing to advertise scholarship opportunities on its website that make no mention of the fact students can’t enter the country and that stipends are only available to students on-campus.
China does not release annual data on international student numbers, but the most recent survey in 2019 found that there were over 9,000 Malaysian students at Chinese institutions the previous year.
The same year, China played host to almost 500,000 international students, including those on both degree and non-degree courses, making it one of the top destinations for international students globally.
Of those 51,000 came from South Korea, 29,000 from Thailand, 28,000 from Pakistan, 23,000 from India and 21,000 from the US.
South Korean students have been the only nationality allowed to return to China, while some Sino-foreign joint venture universities, such as New York University Shanghai, have also been able to get around the restrictions.
Students in China face a unique set of challenges compared to international students in other countries, in part due to a lack of financial incentive on the part of institutions to push for their return.
The fact that their studies are commonly taken separately from Chinese students means provision during the pandemic has suffered, while there is little flexibility when it comes to credit transfer and extending study deadlines.
Medical students in particular have said without practical training their qualifications will not be valid in their home countries.
Some universities have now started making arrangements for belongings to be shipped back to students who are unlikely to return to the country by the end of their studies.
“We are to start the shipping back of overseas students’ luggage”
Hubei University of Technology recently told international students abroad that “there are approximately 400 overseas students whose luggage is still stored on campus”.
“For the safety of your luggage and to reduce property damage caused by prolonged storage, we are to start the shipping back of overseas students’ luggage.”
The PIE reported in early 2021 that landlords and universities had been emptying the rooms of international students, with some having been told to have their friends to collect their belongings.