Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 5 News List

SARS still hurting Chinese reliant on foreign students


Most summers, Zhou Li does a brisk business selling soda and instant noodles to the enthusiastic foreigners studying Chinese next door. She sleeps on a bench in her convenience store, in case a student craves ice cream at 3am.

But this summer, there are no students at the Beijing Language Institute. The program was canceled months ago because of SARS. Nor are there any students at the programs in China organized by Princeton, Johns Hopkins or dozens of others. They were canceled, too, because of SARS.

Two months after the government declared that SARS was under control, Zhou and many of the people who run bars, convenience stores and small businesses dependent on China's annual influx of summer students are still reeling from the repercussions.

They are largely alone now in their predicament because SARS is old news for everyone else.

Tourism has bounced back. One airline, China Eastern, reported last week that passenger traffic jumped by 162 percent in July. Businesses are recovering. While retail sales fell 19.7 percent in June compared with last year, they dropped 43.2 percent in May. And while a few beauty parlors and taxis still hang signs proclaiming themselves as "disinfected," no one wears masks anymore.

But for Zhou, business is down at least 50 percent. The foreign students she watched with near-maternal pride as they practiced their new language skills on her are gone, at least for this year.

"I miss the students; they are like my guests, not my customers," said Zhou, 48, who does not speak English.

Every summer, an estimated 1,000 students from the US pay roughly US$5,000 apiece to enroll in dozens of language programs, mostly in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in places like Nanjing and Xiamen, according to Mark Lenhart, director of CET Academic Programs in Washington, which sends about 300 students a year.

But the SARS panic peaked in April and May, which is when summer programs are typically made final. So almost everything was canceled.

The summer has been equally bleak for Zhi Hun, a bartender at the Floating Isle Bar in northern Beijing. Business, he estimates, is down by 30 percent.

With its Jack Daniels posters and red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the bar has lured students from places like the inter-university program for Chinese language studies at nearby Tsinghua University. But on a recent day at happy hour, when the bar would ordinarily have been filled with summer students, Zhi was alone, and watching a video, Braveheart.

"There's definitely been a big impact," said Zhi, who says that his English has slipped because he no longer can practice. "We need the students to come back."

Many programs plan to make limited returns in the fall, as long as SARS does not resurface. But that is little comfort to Zhou and Zhi.

For now, Zhou reminds herself that the life of a store owner is better than her previous work as an accountant. She is also getting good sleep, she said with a laugh, since there are no tappings on her store window seeking a middle-of-the night snack.

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