China preparing for the return of students from Africa

China is getting ready to welcome back students from Africa who have been unable to return to the country since they left following the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

Rwanda, Liberia, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania, Morocco and Ghana, among others, are on a list of 57 countries where degree students may apply for X1 (study) visas if they have permission from their host universities in China to return to the People’s Republic of China.

Students who have existing study visas or who have been contacted privately by their universities in China to resume contact classes, even if their home countries are not on the list, should make further enquiries.

“Chinese universities are privately reaching out to their students to call them back or collect information on their status,” according to a blog on the website China admissions.

In what has been referred to as “new visa rules”, applications must include a vaccination certificate. Upon their return, international students will also have to quarantine for 10 days and, in the regions where they study, additional COVID health protocols may apply. Students are expected to foot these bills.

China asked governments for information

Chinese authorities have been asking governments in Africa to compile lists of affected students in preparation for their return to the country where they are studying, a government official in Zimbabwe has told University World News.

“The ministry of foreign affairs and international trade is compiling a list of students who are enrolled in Chinese universities but are currently out of the People’s Republic of China and would like to return to complete their studies.

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“This list [with names, passport and student numbers, universities’ names as well as programmes and study levels] has been requested by the Chinese authorities in order to assist in arranging an orderly return of the students who could not continue with their studies in China because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the ministry said.

In what appears to be a more coordinated approach, a staggered start to the semester is foreseen to manage COVID outbreaks, reports Mimi Leung of University World News.

But questions have been raised about logistical arrangements for the return of students from Africa. Amid tourism restrictions because of ongoing COVID spikes, international flights to China have not returned to normal. However, some airlines have been flying from countries such as South Africa, Ghana and Kenya to China.

According to the Zimbabwean official, chartering planes for the students was an option.

Students welcome end of information blackout

Affected African students, who have suffered an information blackout about when they would be able to resume face-to-face lectures, have welcomed the news.

In April 2021, University World News reported that, since January 2021, students had petitioned the Chinese government repeatedly to be allowed to return to complete their studies, as most universities in China had resumed in-person teaching, but borders were not reopened for the students.

For Sabin Ngoga, a final-year mechanical engineering student from Zhejiang University, a public university in Hangzhou, China, the reopening of face-to-face lectures was long overdue.

“It was hard for us to study online over the past two years,” the Rwandan told University World News. “As a technical student, following online was so hard and doing practice was impossible,” he said.

He added that he had to get up at night to follow classes online due to the six-hour time difference between Rwanda and China, and carried the cost of the internet.

“I am super excited that face-to-face classes will resume soon and I plan to go back to China in September. My plan is to ensure that I enrol for a masters after getting my bachelor degree,” he added.

According to official figures, there are about 500 Rwandan students pursuing tertiary qualifications in China.

Challenges students may face

In an interview, Kgothatso Shai, a politics professor at South Africa’s University of Limpopo, said China’s decision to invite African students back to its universities may be an indication that it no longer sees a COVID-19 threat coming from Africa.

“China also desperately wants to change the narrative around alleged racist tendencies against her, especially during the COVID environment,” he said.

Shai said catch-up and remedial plans should be considered for students from Africa when they return to Chinese universities.

In a context where internet connectivity is a challenge, he said what African students were doing back home after leaving China differs from one student to the other.

“Some were studying with local universities and, where possible, will need to be credited on return to China. Others exploited online platforms to pursue their studies with Chinese universities,” he added.

report by ICEF Monitor, which provides data on international students, Asian students remain the most populous in China, but the numbers of African students are growing more quickly.

The rate of growth of African students going to China for study abroad is said to have grown by 258% between 2011 and 2017, compared with a growth rate of 30% for the US and declines of minus-2% for France and minus-24% for the United Kingdom.

In 2019, there were about 80,000 students from Africa studying in China and the growth was expected to increase before COVID-19 derailed international mobility.

However, African students face some difficulties in China.

A 2021 paper published in the International Journal of Engineering Research and Management titled ‘Challenges faced by African students in China’ listed social-culture challenges such as difficulty making friends with Chinese and attending Chinese cultural activities as well as racial discrimination, while academic challenges include difficulties in understanding teachers’ explanations during classes and difficulty interacting with Chinese colleagues.

There are also language challenges such as difficulties speaking and understanding Mandarin as well as understanding and using numerous Chinese websites and apps.

Despite China being the country that awards more scholarships to African students than any other country prior to COVID, and has resumed doing so, financial concerns have also emerged as a challenge for students from Africa.

Students banned from working

Student visa holders in China have been warned that they are not allowed to work, not even on a part-time basis.

Africans who intend to study in China, but with no steady financial support or without a scholarship offer, have to take note of the work ban before they depart, a researcher on transcultural studies, Song Hou, an associate professor at the College of Liberal Arts, Shantou University, China, told University World News.

Hou, a co-author of the study, ‘International student mobility as “aspiration on the go”: Stories from African students at a Chinese university’, published in the journal Higher Education on 29 July 2022, said their study of the African students in China showed that the mentality that, once they arrive in China money won’t be a problem, “is not a wise one”.

The authors conducted an ethnographic study over a period from September 2018 to November 2019 at a Chinese university that they referred to as ‘Friendship University’ for ethical reasons, and focused on 21 undergraduate and post-graduate students as key participants.

They found that students travelling from Africa to China hope to achieve their aspirations of becoming well-paid professionals and added that, “with growing intensive economic and educational engagement in Africa over the past two decades, China has emerged as an alternative to the West as a place to which African students can direct such an aspiration”.

“Nevertheless, the aspiring future of being an engineer might become fragile if these students’ financial support falls unstable,” they said, citing examples of some students who were interviewed in the course of the study to show that, if the reliance on financial assistance from families fails, “these students became vulnerable to the financial difficulties placed on them”.

Hou said it is, therefore, important that prospective students check “the admission letter to see whether a scholarship is really offered and, if yes, what kind of scholarship it is.

“Before their departure, they may want to contact the university to double-check if there are any doubts or concerns.”

In addition, Hou said China offers a great many more scholarships to African students than other countries, but added that there were instances where “students are cheated by local agencies in their own countries and-or meet financial difficulties while studying in China, as we have found in the fieldwork”.

Among those who were misled by the agents to enter China, some drop out when their finances run out and return home with the assistance of their teachers, churches and international students.

Hou said the students represented in their study, who fell into financial problems, should not “lead to a generalisation that China is financially dangerous for African students”.

A problem is that some of the students travelling to China do not get enough information. He, accordingly, advised that they must obtain detailed information before they apply to a Chinese university, in particular, pertinent Chinese laws and policies that international students should know of.

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