When will the Pakistani students be able to return to China to resume their studies?

#PMSavePakStudentsofChina and #TakeBackPakStudentsToChina got the twitter trending ahead of Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s four-day Beijing visit. During his stay, he attended the
Beijing Winter Olympics of 2022, and held bilateral meetings with President Xi Jinping,
Premier Li Keqiang and other prominent Chinese business leaders in the hopes to further
strengthen the bilateral relations, most specifically for economic cooperation and a robust
trade between China and Pakistan. China is the most noteworthy investor in Pakistan. Feared
with his plummeting popularity and the next general elections scheduled in mid-2023, the
Pakistan PM sought to secure Chinese financial assistance. One may note, however, that
assurance and assistance was also needed urgently by Pakistani students enrolled in China
and stranded in Pakistan, to go back to China and complete their studies.
Pakistani students studying in Chinese universities increased significantly after the launching
of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the ambitious flagship project of China’s
Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Pakistan. The number of Pakistani students in China in
2013 stood at 9,630. In 2019, 28,023 Pakistani students were enrolled in various Chinese
educational institutions in various disciplines, according to official data published by the
China’s Ministry of Education. Off these, 7,034 were studying in state-sponsored scholarship
programmes. Pakistan stands at third in the number of international students enrolled in
Chinese universities, with South Korea and Thailand taking up the first and second position
China had deferred the entry of foreign nationals in March 2020 to stop the spread of
COVID-19. As part of its policy to not issue visas to international students to control the
spread of the coronavirus pandemic in its country, many international students enrolled in
Chinese educational institutions were left in a lurch. It has been close to two years now, and
the Pakistani students stranded at home fear that if they are unable to join back and complete
their courses they would lose out on their qualifications.
Owing to CPEC, the number of Chinese companies operational in Pakistan has also
increased, and there was increasing interest to learn the Mandarin language among the
Pakistani students in the hopes of future employment opportunities. Substantial scholarships,
low tuition fee and cheap standard of living has made China a favorite educational destination
among the country’s middle class, favoring to study in China against the expensive countries
like the United States or the European countries, which also have stringent visa requirements.
Most of the students enrolled in China have been self-funded by their families, and they are
now feeling grave financial pressure. To top it, there is the uncertainty of getting back to their
professional courses. Stipends and scholarships were also suspended due to offline classes in
China. An average scholarship gives around 3000 RMB of monthly stipend which roughly
equals to 82,000 Pakistani rupees. Most of the students left their jobs in Pakistan to enroll in
Chinese schools and universities. With the job market taking its toll in Pakistan, the students
have not been able to get back to their jobs in previous work places and the uncertainty of not
being able to go back to China to resume and finish their courses is only adding to their list of
financial problems. To some students the stipend was the only source of income for them and
their family.
The Pakistan Medical Commission does not allow for medical students who had to opt for
online classes to apply for medical practice license in Pakistan. Since their degrees will not be
recognized, they have nowhere else to go but complete their unfinished courses from China
to enable them to apply for their medical license for practicing in Pakistan. Same has been the
case for many PhD students who are required to complete their practical lab work as part of
requirement to complete their PhD in China and have been unable to complete this owing to
the travel restrictions.
In July 2020, the South Korean students were able to return to China to resume their studies
as China and South Korea made arrangements and visas to the South Korean students was
reinstated. Pakistani students raise the grievance that their counterparts from South Korea
have been allowed to join back their courses in China but the same has not been permitted for
Pakistani students. They find it as a discriminatory attitude towards them. The Pakistani
students blame the Pakistani government for not taking up their issue seriously and not
following it up with the Chinese authorities.
The Pakistani students enrolled in Chinese educational institutions have been appealing the
Pakistan PM to represent the voice of the students to the Chinese government heads for their
return and resuming their courses. Although the Pakistani government has repeatedly said
that it is in touch with the Chinese government regarding the return of Pakistani students to
their enrolled Chinese universities, not much progress has been made in this regard.
The Joint Statement between People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan issued on 6th February, 2022, with regard to the return of the Pakistani students
stated that, “both sides noted with satisfaction robust cooperation between Pakistan and
China in education sector, and committed to further enhance cooperation between the
educational institutions of the two countries. Pakistan side highlighted that China has
become a popular education destination. While ensuring safety against COVID-19, China
will arrange for Pakistani students to return to China and resume classes in a prudent
manner”. However, it is crucial to note that an exact timeframe should have been discussed
by the Pakistani PM while he was in China. The Pakistani students have been anxious to go
back to China to complete their studies.
Whiel the joint statement glorifies the CPEC, however, the plight of students is only
mentioned once. Much more could have been achieved to solve the issue of stranded
Pakistani students, and to assuage their fears. Claiming themselves to be all-weather friends,
it is clear apathy both from Chinese and Pakistan government heads for not taking up the
issue of Pakistani youth.
As the COVID-19 pandemic extends to its third year, there is increasing uncertainty in the
minds of students around the world. Pakistani students enrolled in China have been going
through the same hardships. A good structured road map to take back the students to China is
the need of the hour, without any false hopes to students who have waited for two years.
When the students are vaccinated and ready to quarantine and follow all the safety procedures
set by China, they should be allowed to return back to China to resume their studies. And
genuine concerns and woes of the students should be addressed and efforts be made to make
up for the loss of two years of education.

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