Chinese students spend billions overseas. Coronavirus travel bans will leave some countries seriously out of pocket

A man walks on an empty street in Wuhan, China, on February 13, 2020.

Instead, the 22-year-old has spent the past three weeks confined to his family’s apartment in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak, which is currently on lockdown to prevent the virus spreading.

But even if Xu could leave home, the United States — where he’s studied for the past four-and-a-half years — won’t let him in.

Over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away in Beijing, Alex — who asked not to use her real name for fear of online retribution — is in a similar situation. She’s spent the past two weeks at home with her mom and grandpa, being delivered groceries by community leaders. She’s worried she won’t be able to fly to Sydney to study later this month and may have to delay her law degree by a semester.

That has locked Xu and Alex out of their studies — and they are by no means alone.

In 2017, an estimated 900,000 Chinese tertiary students studied abroad. Around half of those went to either the United States or Australia, contributing billions of dollars to their economies — money that those countries now stand to lose. It is not clear how many of the 360,000 Chinese students studying in the US were outside the country when the US travel ban hit on January 31, shortly before many universities were due to resume. But when Australia imposed its restrictions at the start of February, authorities estimated that 56% of Chinese students — about 106,680 people — were still abroad. Term was due to begin in late February or early March.

“For Australia, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. It’s exactly the time of the year in which people are coming from China to Australia,” said Andrew Norton, a professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Australian National University. The virus outbreak coincided with the Lunar New Year — the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, when many students go home to see their family.

A city on lockdown

At first, it was just a normal holiday period for Xu, catching up with friends in Wuhan and eating food. The coronavirus outbreak didn’t seem like a huge issue.

Timeline

How events unfolded

December 8: The first patient of Wuhan coronavirus developed symptoms

December 31: The first cases reported to the World Health Organization

January 1: The market in Wuhan where the outbreak is believed to have started shuts down for disinfection

January 8: Chinese scientists identify the pathogen as a new strain of coronavirus

January 23: Authorities put Wuhan into partial lockdown

January 31: US announces it will deny entry to foreign nationals who have traveled in China in the last 14 days

February 1: Australia bans all travellers entering from mainland China

Source: CNN reporting

Xu wore a mask and avoided the area around the seafood market linked to the outbreak, which is only a few kilometers from his house.

Then on January 23, the night before he was set to fly back to New York, Wuhan authorities announced they were locking down the city. There was still time to leave, but Xu decided not to go — he thought he would be safer inside Wuhan, and that the lockdown wouldn’t last long.

On January 27, his graduate program in interactive telecommunications at New York University (NYU) restarted. On January 31, the US government announced it wouldn’t let any foreign nationals flying from mainland China into the country.

Xu was told he could take classes remotely, but to him it wasn’t worth paying $62,000 per year in course fees for distance learning. He decided to take a break this semester. That will delay his graduation by six months.

The situation in Australia

The University of Sydney, where Alex studies, is making allowances for Chinese students.

Those affected by coronavirus travel bans can study remotely, start their semester a few weeks late, or defer their degree. Alex will defer this semester if she hasn’t been able to fly back by mid-March.

She pays about $45,000 Australian dollars ($30,280) each year — more than local students, who are eligible for reduced fees.

When Australia imposed its travel ban on February 1, it was effective immediately. While the WHO has advised against such measures, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “Our medical advice is it’s in the interest of Australians to do so.”

At the time, there were 80 Chinese people in transit — including 47 students.

Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram told the ABC that 18 decided to go back to China, while the others were put into self-isolation for 14 days. “This was a very difficult situation for the students, of course, we recognize that,” Outram said. “They were caught between, you know, an epidemic in China and coming to Australia and having issues raised with their visas.”

David, a 24-year-old studying engineering at the University of Sydney, who has been in self-imposed quarantine at his home in southern Guangdong province for weeks, said the Australian government’s actions made him feel “completely neglected.”

“I’m a taxpayer, I do my part in society, I’ve donated blood,” said David, who asked not to use his real name for fear that his comments could hurt his chance of getting an Australian visa. “After all the things I’ve done, you still consider me not part of your society.”

The logistical problems created by the virus are not short-term issues.

Universities will need to work out how to accommodate the backlog of students like Xu and Alex who have been delayed, as well as students who would have taken those courses anyway — and some universities just won’t have capacity, Norton said.

What this means for the universities

If thousands of students are forced to forgo this semester, universities in Australia and the United States stand to lose billions of dollars.

In Australia, 23.3% of universities’ total revenue came from international students in 2017 — and Chinese students made up over 38% of all international enrollments in 2018. In total, international education contributed 37.6 billion Australian dollars ($25 billion) to the Australian economy in the 2018-2019 financial year. In the US, Chinese students contributed $14.9 billion to the US economy in 2018, according to government data.

Norton, the professor of higher education policy at the Australian National University, believes that most Chinese students in Australia will need to delay their study by at least a trimester or semester. That means that, in the short term, universities in Australia face an estimated 2 to 3 billion Australian dollar cash flow hit from students who can’t make it to class, he said.

“The government realizes this will have huge economic costs that effect them as well as the universities and tourism providers,” he said.

In the US, there had already been weakening demand from Chinese students partly due to tensions on American campuses amid the ongoing trade war, said Rahul Choudaha, a US-based analyst of international student trends and a visiting scholar at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley.

“It’s kind of a very unexpected, unwanted, undesirable speed bump,” he said.

It’s also an issue facing universities outside of the United States and Australia. South Korea, for instance, has around 70,000 Chinese students at its universities. The new semester kicks off in March, but already many universities have opted to delay the start of semester by two weeks, to accommodate students living in cities on lockdown.

Anger at Chinese people

The coronavirus crisis struck at a time when hostile debates over Chinese Communist Party influence on Australian and US campuses were already complicating life for Chinese students overseas.

Chinese students have been accused of stealing American secrets to diminish US influence, especially as the trade war between China and American rages. In Australia, politicians have raised concern over whether the Chinese influence on campus is limiting free speech. For Chinese people in Australia and the US, that public debate has sometimes been alienating. Now, the coronavirus outbreak has prompted more anti-Chinese sentiment.

While stuck at home, Alex has been taken by the different reactions to the outbreak on China’s heavily controlled internet and the internet beyond the so-called Great Firewall. In China, there are messages of support for Wuhan, but internationally she’s seen anger directed at Chinese people.

“It’s waves and waves of hate,” she said, pointing to online commentators who argued that Chinese people deserved the outbreak because they eat bat — something that has not been linked to the outbreak. “I felt misunderstood, I felt abandoned. I felt I don’t matter.”

Alex says that on her social media feeds the situation has been turned into a Chinese versus Australian dichotomy, when really, it’s about the virus versus people.

She’s afraid that when she gets back to Australia, she could be the target of racial abuse. People who look Chinese are “paying the price just because other people are scared,” she said.

Economic hit

Already, experts are predicting that the economic hit of the coronavirus could be much more significant than the SARS epidemic in 2003.

If China’s economy is struggling, Chinese parents may have less money to spend on educating their children overseas.

David believes that the perceived animosity toward Chinese students in Australia may result in students opting to go elsewhere. When parents are looking at which country to send their children, they don’t just look at the quality of education — but also at how welcoming and stable a society is, he says.

As the quality of China’s own universities continues to improve, staying at home could also become a more attractive proposition, said Choudah, the higher education analyst.

A few days ago, a fellow Chinese national asked Alex whether she would recommend studying law in Australia. Alex answered honestly: she’s torn.

Studying abroad can be a positive experience, she said, but it also carries the risk of racial abuse, especially now that people of Asian origin are viewed with suspicion as the virus spreads.

Xu isn’t worried about negative reactions when he is finally able to go back to New York — after all, as a Wuhan native, he now faces potential discrimination within China, too.

CNN’s Yoonjung Seo contributed reporting from Seoul.

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