OPINION: By disappointing overseas returnees, Beijing fails its second battle against COVID-19

With tens of thousands of students returning to China after fleeing COVID-19 abroad, the Chinese government is taking strenuous measures to prevent them from reintroducing coronavirus. (Courtesy: Mx Granger via Wikimedia Commons)

As colleges and universities around the world shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one million Chinese students faced the dilemma of either going back to China — once the epicenter of the pandemic — or staying in countries that were yet to endure the virus’s full effects.

With tens of thousands of students returning to China after fleeing COVID-19 abroad, the Chinese government is taking strenuous measures to prevent them from reintroducing coronavirus. However, China’s draconian actions have emboldened much of the public to turn against returning citizens. Rather than setting returnees up for criticism and bullying, China must bear the undeniable responsibility of accommodating its own citizens.

Many of those who chose to return to China have faced massive headaches from widespread cancellations of international flights, often grim living conditions in centralized quarantine and social pressure derived from harsh Chinese public opinion, which has labeled returnees traitors to their country. Returnees’ suffocation was twofold, owing not simply to the masks they wore on 12-hour flights, but also to the hostility of their own people upon arrival in China. 

On Chinese social media platforms Weibo and WeChat, relentless cyberbullying was directed toward overseas students, accusing them of poisoning the country every time new imported cases were reported. Some even exposed private information about COVID-19 patients who returned from overseas. 

Chinese media enabled such reports instead of countering them.

Jessie Wu, a first-year student at University College London, bought five tickets from Heathrow Airport to her home city of Xi’an — each with a different airline, on a different booking platform and going through different connecting airports — to ensure she could make the trip. During her 40-hour journey, she barely ate or drank on the plane to minimize the risk of infection, and slept on an airport bench in Singapore while waiting over 20 hours for her connecting flight.

In a vlog of her trip home, Sammy Shen PO ’20 showed the less-than-ideal hygienic standards in her quarantine facility, a blue-collar apartment in Hangzhou. Shen has over 10,000 followers on Bilibili, a video sharing platform, and said she received numerous spiteful comments accusing her and other returnees for wasting China’s public health resources and delaying the country’s recovery from the pandemic.

In March, a video of a Chinese teenager asking quarantine hotel staff for bottled mineral water was widely circulated on social media. She had returned to China from Italy, and in the video, she claimed that she had not had clean water for three days and angrily criticized the staff working in the quarantine facility for ignoring basic human rights. She was later named “bottled water girl” by netizens — or internet users — on Weibo and was used as a representation of returnees, bitterly labeled as “spoiled” and “ungrateful.” 

These young returning students represent the rising middle class in China whose families can afford an overseas education. But they have never felt more powerless.

Chinese media have fueled social media attacks by widely reporting on them while barely offering the perspective of the returnees. In a society where news is strictly state-controlled, we Chinese are almost certain that media and reporters are acting on orders from higher-ups. Through instigating social media outrage, Beijing is intimidating returnees, costing them the trust and confidence of thousands of Chinese citizens.

On March 26, China’s aviation regulator announced that every Chinese airline could fly only one weekly route to one Chinese city per country, with a maximum seat occupancy rate of 75 percent. With this order, many overseas students’ way home was essentially blocked. Recently, the policy has been confirmed to be effective until at least October. 

Meanwhile, inside the near-impenetrable national border, the government’s iron-fisted antivirus policies seem to have worked well. After almost two months of lockdown in key epicenters and drastic restriction of people’s movement between cities nationwide, China has seen some victory in its fight to contain COVID-19. For most of May, China has reported less than 10 new cases each day. 

People were desperately waiting for the government to allow resumption of normal life. Businesses are facing bankruptcy; students are losing motivation for online learning; friends and families are craving to hug their loved ones.

Some Chinese endorse Beijing’s tightened measures to control the entry of people from other countries. Treatment of imported cases and quarantining of their close contacts could put immense pressure on China’s medical resources, which have already reached capacity. Some medical staff are already working long shifts trying to process the returnees at airports. The inflow of overseas returnees might overwhelm the health care system, which has already been massively stretched in the past few months.

However, it is the government’s fundamental responsibility to prioritize its own people and reinforce solidarity during tough times like these.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak raised global concern in January, Chinese communities around the world have been fervently gathering medical supplies such as high-grade N95 masks, protection suits and goggles. They have led donation efforts to support frontline medical staff and hospitals in Wuhan and other cities badly hit by the pandemic, all while working hard to counter the racist narratives in Western media who named COVID-19 an “Asian virus.”

Amid this pandemic, we have seen increased Chinese nationalism as countries have tightened their borders. However, the Chinese government proceeded in the opposite direction, raising barriers against its own citizens who have been standing up for their country this entire time.

Today, many of my Chinese friends in the U.S. are still worried their flights could be canceled at any moment and are anxiously looking for summer housing if they end up stuck.

Besides sending medical assistance to developed nations in Europe or twisting narratives about the earlier outbreak, China could demonstrate its real power by helping its people come home.

Having largely won its hard-fought battle against COVID-19, China should now devote its resources to welcoming its children back. Years after the pandemic, Chinese people will either proudly recall the crisis as a time they felt the strength of their passport, or remember it as the reason why they gave it up.

Yutong Niu PO ’23 is from Shenyang, China and now based in Singapore. She hopes all her friends, international and domestic, will have a safe, healthy and comfortable summer. 

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