China’s PM says all foreign students can return, as country considers increasing international flights

Beijing, however, offers no timeline for Indian students
China’s Premier Li Keqiang has said all international students may return to China as the country considers increasing international flights more than two years into the pandemic. Tens of thousands of foreign students, including several thousand Indian medical students, have been awaiting a return to China to resume their studies, with many expressing concerns about their ability to graduate as they remain stranded overseas.

Speaking at a World Economic Forum dialogue with global business leaders, Mr. Li, the second-ranked leader, said China “will make its COVID control measures more targeted and well-calibrated under the premise of ensuring safety against COVID infections, including steadily improving visa and COVID testing policies, and further resuming and increasing international passenger flights in an orderly way.”

“All international students may return to China to continue their studies should they so wish, and outbound commerce and trade activities and cross-border travel for labour services will be advanced in an orderly fashion,” he added.

Officials, when asked about Mr. Li’s comments, did not, however, offer a timetable. “We welcome the return of Indian and other foreign students to China and will make corresponding arrangements,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. “We have been working intensively for the return of foreign students to China. Some foreign students have already returned to China to continue their studies. As for the return of Indian students, as we have said before, the relevant departments in China and India have been in contact and made progress on this. The responsible departments in both countries will stay in close communication and work for the early return of the first batch of Indian students.”

Zero-COVID policy
While Mr. Li’s comments appeared aimed at assuaging increasing investor disenchantment with China amid its continuing zero-COVID policy, under which international travel has been severely restricted for more than two years, they do not suggest a significant change in the measures.

Zero-COVID, observers in Beijing said, will likely firmly remain in place at least until the once-in-five-year Party Congress, likely in October, when President Xi Jinping will begin a third term. Several cities in China remain under some form of lockdowns and mass testing continues to be deployed even when a single case is detected. Flights to China also remain limited and international travel is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.

China’s domestic economy has also taken a hit on account of the COVID restrictions, with official data showing only 0.4% growth in the second quarter, the lowest since the start of the pandemic. “On the whole, the Chinese economy has withstood the downward pressure, and has stabilised and rebounded,” Mr. Li said. “That said, the recovery is not yet firmly established, and painstaking efforts are still needed to stabilise overall economic performance.”

Beijing has taken limited measures ostensibly aimed at addressing concerns, such as reducing quarantine for arrivals from 21 days to 7 days. But with the rest of the world returning to some form of normalcy, China’s measures still remain among the most stringent.

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