China’s Nepali students in limbo

China's Nepali students still stuck in Kathmandu stage a demonstration requesting for their return to their universities.

Nepali students in Chinese universities who had come home for holidays during the pandemic have been stuck for two years, unable to return and complete their degrees. 

Since China formally closed its doors for international students in February 2020, those who had come to Nepal for the winter break in December 2019 and the initial days of the pandemic are still stranded in Kathmandu. Their hopes of completing their studies and career prospects are in limbo.  

“My gap year is coming to an end but I’m confused about what steps to take next, I haven’t received any guidelines on conducting medical internships in Nepal,” says Praveer Raj Singh, a medical student at Peking University who has been stuck in Nepal for nearly two years.

Away from universities and having to attend online classes has left Nepali students deeply anxious and desperate, prompting some of them to join WeChat groups like ‘Nepal-China Returning Students’ to organise discussions and initiating petitions to apply pressure on the governments of both Nepal and China as well as their universities.

Nepali medical students studying at Chinese universities stage a protest.

Across these WeChat groups, there are new petitions every few days asking students for personal information, which is redundant as every international student studying in China is already required to complete their registration procedure with their details.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, China has introduced strict rules for foreign arrivals. Although the novel coronavirus appears to have started here, China has been more successful than most countries in bringing the pandemic under control.

The Chinese Communist Party, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, does not want to jeopardise its domestic stability ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Hence, China is unlikely to allow international students to return anytime soon, notwithstanding protests or petitions.

A more effective approach would be for official in Kathmandu to talk to their Chinese counterparts at a government-to-government level, since that fits in better with China’s top-down approach to doing things.

Furthermore, due to the existing language barrier and China’s restrictive internet policies like ‘The Great Firewall’, concerns that are primarily raised in English through platforms like Twitter and Instagram have little to no reach in China. Students have managed to raise awareness, but among themselves and not on the right platforms.  

Articles written in Mandarin by Chinese authors about the situation of international students do not have enough reach either, since they have mostly been from personal WeChat blogs. Mainstream Chinese media on the other hand has not touched the issue of international students, and there has been no discussion on popular interactive social media platforms like Weibo, which has over 500 million active users. 

Similarly, the complaints and petitions brought up by students are mostly conveyed in English or Nepali, which are not effective with a Chinese audience. 

Student protest is a widely used tool to pressure the authorities and fulfil demands for change in Nepali colleges and universities. That process will not work in China, or with Chinese universities. The petitions and protests may be heard, but do not guarantee sufficient pressure for those in decision-making positions. 

In fact, students who once believed in protests have since lost hope. An informal survey on WeChat groups by over 100 Nepali students waiting to go back to universities revealed that the majority no longer believe it is a route that can help them return to China.

“Nepali Students in China” Twitter account campaigning to return Nepali students back to China

Nepali political leaders and the Nepal embassy in China also have been raising the issue with the Chinese authorities, but so far to no avail. Most international students in China do not seem concerned about classmates from other nationalities not returning, and do not raise the issue with their respective universities. 

Students who remained in China in 2019 feel lucky to not have rushed back home during the peak of the pandemic. One of them is Aayush Maskey, an undergraduate student of Xidian University in Xi’an.  

“There are several opportunities for international students who stayed on  campus, the universities sponsored several city tours,” says Maskey, whose classes are still mostly online but he has a better prospect of jobs and internship opportunities.

He is now the face for his university’s promotional campaigns, and has benefited from in-person interactions. 

China will eventually let international students in, but only when its government wants to. Until then, the only thing the students can do as what they have been doing since the beginning of the pandemic: wait for further notice.

Suniva Chitrakar is an undergraduate student majoring in International Political Economy at Peking University. Aneka R Rajbhandari is pursuing her Master’s degree in Chinese Politics from the Silk Road School, Renmin University.