Coronavirus Forces Foreign Students in China to Choose: Stay or Go


HONG KONG — Word came from home via hurried emails and instant messages to campuses across the country: Leave China now.

Dexter Lensing listened. China had just been stricken by a new coronavirus that so far has killed more than 1,000 people and ground much of the country to a virtual halt. The Ph.D. student was one of nearly half a million foreigners studying at universities in China who was forced to choose whether to stay or leave.

For decades, students like him have bridged language, politics and culture to help close the distance between China and the rest of the world. Mr. Lensing in particular was drawn to China by its opaque political system, in which decisions are made in the shadows and people in power can rise and fall with the eddies of Beijing’s palace intrigue.

Now Mr. Lensing is one of likely thousands of others who are wondering when or whether they will have an opportunity to study in China again.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been so disappointed in my life,” said Mr. Lensing, 33, who is now in Belmont, N.C., with his sister. In his final academic year at Georgia State University, he worries he will not have a chance to return. His most valuable possessions, he said, remain in a dormitory in the northern Chinese city of Harbin.

The coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,000 people in China, has temporarily severed many of the ties between the country and the global community. For many Chinese students abroad, that means worrying about family at home and, in some cases, enduring unwanted attention from classmates.

For many foreign students studying in China, the outbreak has frozen or even ended their opportunities to study a vast and complicated country. The severing comes at a fraught time for China’s relations with the world, as it seeks to build itself up as a counterweight to American global influence.

The impact could be particularly significant when it comes to the United States. Many of the young American students who traveled to China in the 1980s when China began to open up went on to become journalists, business leaders and politicians who helped connect the two countries.

But student exchanges were already falling, and educational partnerships have been under pressure by free speech and geopolitical issues. The number of American students studying in China totaled about 11,600 as of 2018, down more than 2 percent compared with the year before.

“It’s a metaphor for the decoupling that is going on in the high technology, trade and investment realm, although for totally different reasons,” said Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “All of those trends represent a wrenching of the fabric that was weaving a more cosmopolitan side of China.”

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

Not all students have fled. Some were stuck, like a group of Nigerian students and teachers at the universities in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. The government of Pakistan has told about 800 other students to stay in Wuhan for fear that their country’s health care system cannot handle their return.

Some, like Kathy Song, chose to stay. Ms. Song, a China studies and social sciences double major at New York University Shanghai, has taken up residence with her uncle, aunt and young cousin, who live in Beijing.

Ms. Song, 19, who speaks Mandarin and practiced during summer holidays in China visiting relatives, chose to study in China because she believes that, as an American born Chinese, she can help to dispel misconceptions on both sides.

“China is the world’s biggest developing country,” she said, “and I believe its relationship with the U.S. is going to be one of the most important for this century.”

With much of the city closed, Ms. Song is spending a lot of her time indoors. Inspired by her uncle, she has taken up calligraphy. She is also learning the differences in parenting styles between her uncle and her parents back in New York.

“My uncle cares a lot about the studies,” she said, adding, “He’s way more intense than my parents.”

Others who chose to stay are discovering how much they miss human interaction. Esma Dallakyan, a masters student from Armenia studying at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, spends most of her time studying in her dorm room. Campus life is increasingly isolating.

“All the streets are empty and you can’t find anyone to talk to,” she said, “It’s a little bit lonely.”

As a student of public health and a former Armenian health official, she has been getting a different kind education. “Now, as I see the efforts of the government in real time, I feel like it’s an internship,” said Ms. Dallakyan, 26.

Those who left China have little to do but wait.

“I live far away and it’s not easy to buy tickets and plan when to go back to China,” said Diego Rocha, 31, who is in his second year of an M.B.A. at Tsinghua-MIT.

Mr. Rocha, who is now home in São Paulo, Brazil, said that if graduation in the spring is delayed he will have a harder time getting a visa to stay and find a job in China. During the final semester, business students are partnered with a local company, something that is now up in the air.

For foreign students living in a country where information is heavily controlled, many like Mr. Rocha and Ryan Trombly, 19, were caught off guard by the sudden panic, adding to their sense of rootlessness.

“It’s funny because it really came out of the blue for a lot of us,” said Ms. Trombly, a sophomore at Duke Kunshan University, a new academic partnership between Duke and Wuhan University in China.

Just a week before authorities began to shut down entire cities to try to contain the outbreak, Ms. Trombly was on a study tour through Nanjing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. “There were a few foreign articles but no domestic attention on the virus, and so we were traveling without masks,” she said.

By the time she left the country on Jan. 24 for a long-planned visit to see her parents in Phoenix over China’s weeklong Lunar New Year holiday, her local train station — usually brimming with people — was the quietest she had ever seen it.

Ms. Trombly plans to eventually return to China to complete two more years of study. For now she is taking online classes.

“I know China is on the rise and very important for what I want to do in the future in international relations,” she said.

Some students were savvy about China’s history with outbreaks. Government officials initially hid the outbreak of SARS 17 years ago, worsening the spread and raising questions about Beijing’s transparency on matters of global safety.

Kerrie Wong, 33, is in her second year of her M.B.A. at Tsinghua with Mr. Rocha. Like him, she stayed in China after the first year of study, even though it is not mandatory.

But on Jan. 1, when there were just a few reports of people falling ill, her mother called from Boston.

“She was telling me that I need to get out now,” Ms. Wong said. She and her parents had lived in Hong Kong during the SARS crisis, which killed nearly 300 people in the semiautonomous Chinese city. She flew out of Beijing on Jan. 7.

She will need to return to China to give her oral defense which was originally scheduled for April or May. Still, she didn’t regret her decision.

“The worst fear is that, as a foreigner, when the news is not as transparent as western news, there is always going to be an information lag,” she said.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry.”


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