Chinese students flying home from overseas to escape the COVID-19 pandemic face a frosty reception from sections of the public who view them as wealthy, spoiled — and potentially contaminated.
The number of officially reported cases in China has dwindled dramatically over the last month, but the country is now taking drastic steps to try and stem a second wave of infections brought in from abroad.
With most international flights canceled and nearly all foreigners barred from entering the country, the vast majority of returnees are Chinese nationals, including many students.
The situation has exposed animosities over class and privilege in Chinese society, fueled by online posts stereotyping returning students as ungrateful and even dangerous — using the irresponsible behavior of a few individuals as proof.
“Right now, public opinion in China is very unfriendly towards Chinese overseas students, and quarantine facilities there are mixed,” Yale University master’s student Hestia Zhang said.
She has decided to stay in self-isolation on campus rather than go back, despite the US now accounting for almost a quarter of reported global infections.
“There are also a lot of risks on the journey home, so I might as well stay here and wait it out,” she said.
Meanwhile Cathy, who landed in China on Tuesday morning, is resigned to the fact that she might encounter prejudice.
Using her English name to conceal her identity, she said she had “no choice but to bear it.”
Nearly half of the country’s 800 imported virus cases are overseas students.
Most returnees need to spend two weeks in isolation, and a widely shared video of a returned student who tried to escape her quarantine accommodation in the city of Qingdao has prompted outrage online.
A similar angry reaction met clips showing another returnee angrily demanding bottled mineral water from quarantine facility workers in Shanghai.
“They eat food from our bowl, yet turn on the motherland as soon as they stop eating. We don’t need to take them back,” wrote one user, garnering thousands of likes.
There is a widely held belief that international students see themselves as superior to their fellow citizens, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University media and communications professor Chin Yik-Chan said.
This is often compounded by perceptions of the students’ extreme wealth and multiple nationalities, she said.
The vast majority of China’s 1.6 million outbound students are still overseas, China’s Ministry of Education said.
Many want to return, but face astronomical ticket prices and grueling multiple-transit flights, plus the increased risk of infection en route.
Beijing chartered a flight on Monday to rescue about 200 overseas students left stranded in Ethiopia after their transfer flights to China were canceled last-minute, and another took off on Thursday to bring students back from the UK.
“I hope those you’re taking back are conscientious and patriotic, and not a group of ungrateful, China-hating wretches who are only concerned with living a life of luxury,” one user fumed.
However, there has been some sympathy, especially as many overseas students donated medical supplies in the initial stages of the outbreak.
“Who emptied global supermarket shelves of protective supplies and sent them back to China? International students!” wrote film director Lu Chuan in an online post.
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