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Gradual reopening of Chinese border underway

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • China’s borders have been closed to international students since early 2020 with the result that the degree studies of thousands of foreign students have been badly disrupted for more than two years
  • As of August 2022, a centrally coordinated opening of the border is at last underway with a growing number of nationalities eligible to once again apply for a Chinese student visa, so long as they have been invited back by their respective universities

The Beijing-based student service platform China Admissions is reporting a partial opening of the Chinese border for international students. The news follows a 21 July statement by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who said at the time that, “All international students can return to China to continue their studies according to their own wishes, and overseas business activities and cross-border labor travel will be promoted in an orderly manner.”

Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sounded a more cautious note immediately after the Premier’s statement, however, with spokesperson Wang Wenbin adding, “We welcome foreign students from India and other countries to return, and will make corresponding arrangements.”

That suggestion of a more gradual process seems to be playing out now. As a 20 August update from China Admissions explains, “More international students from around the world have been given permission to return to China from their universities/PRC embassies. Many students on an X1 visa have already been contacted by their universities, or will be contacted in the following weeks. In addition to the embassies that have already opened student X1 visa applications, we expect all PRC embassies to open their student visa services again in a gradual and coordinated manner. An exact timeline or date is unknown at this stage.”

For the moment, students from the following countries are now eligible to apply for an X1 visa for China: United Kingdom, Ireland, Rwanda, Singapore, Nepal, Myanmar, Liberia, Canada, Thailand, Russia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Nicaragua, Malaysia, Mexico, Indonesia, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania, Morocco, India, USA, Lebanon, Ghana, Hungary, and France.

Students are cautioned, however, that they need to secure permission from their university to return to China before beginning the visa application process.

In fact, that university permission appears to trump even country eligibility as in the list above. Students applying from countries not on that list may do so so long as they have been invited back to China by their university.

Students should also be aware of the process and requirements for returning to China at this stage, which are detailed here.

The news of even an initial reopening of the country’s borders is a major development in the international education landscape. China enrolled nearly 500,000 foreign students in 2019, but its borders have been closed to international students since early 2020 despite intense lobbying by student groups.

Many of the foreign students who have been stranded outside of the country during the pandemic are from Africa and South Asia and are studying STEM subjects such as medicine, engineering, and science. For African students especially, a degree obtained from China has increasingly been viewed over the past few years as a valuable, relatively affordable stepping-stone to a professional career. The possibility of not obtaining the expertise and prestige associated with such a degree naturally has had many extremely concerned, and increasingly frustrated, that they have lost their time and financial investment – and it appears be damaging the image of China’s educational brand in key markets in Africa and Asia.

It is too early to measure the impact of the extended Chinese border closures, but, as has been the case in other key destinations with lengthy border restrictions, the focus in China appears to be shifting at last to restoring student mobility and rebuilding the country’s foreign enrolment.

For additional background, please see:

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