WHEN HIBA BOUROUQIA won a Chinese government scholarship to study international trade, she was “full of hope, full of life”. Now, however, “I just sit and cry,” says the 19-year-old Moroccan. China’s strict quarantine measures have forced her to study remotely from her home near Casablanca. Ms Bourouqia considered giving up and applying for a Moroccan university. But she says the academic standards are not up to China’s, so she is persevering.

Around the world the dreams of many international students have been shattered by the pandemic. The virus has also damaged China’s hopes to continue as a major destination for international students. In 2019 it was third globally, receiving almost 500,000 foreign students, just behind Britain, though still only half the number going to America. Now, however, China’s tough border controls have made it almost impossible for overseas students to enter the country. Many are furious.

Africa has been a big target of Chinese efforts to enhance its global “soft power”. More than 80,000 Africans were studying there before the pandemic struck. China has surpassed America (47,000) and Britain (29,000) as the destination of choice for African students and is now closing on the traditional frontrunner, France (112,000). The Chinese government has showered the continent with bursaries. One education charity estimates that 43% of all scholarships to sub-Saharan Africa are provided by the Chinese government.

Unlike Western students, who usually study in China for a year at most, many Africans live from enrolment to graduation on campus. And for all China’s largesse with scholarships, about 85% of them are self-funded, so they feel heavily invested. They also worry about job prospects. “Would you employ a person who did civil engineering online?” asks Davine, a third-year undergraduate who is stuck in his home country, Zimbabwe.

Many African students have joined an international social-media campaign, #TakeUsBackToChina. It accuses China of ignoring their pleas to be allowed back, even though they are prepared to take necessary tests for covid-19 and submit to quarantine. They have written a petition saying they cannot continue to pay fees for poor online lessons that often require them to be up in the middle of their night.

The grievances of African students have been compounded by a spate of racist incidents in China early last year. In the southern city of Guangzhou, dozens of Africans, including students, were evicted from their homes after several Nigerians tested positive for covid-19.

But in spite of the current problems China’s universities are likely to keep attracting Africans. A year at a leading Chinese college, many of which are rising up global league tables, costs no more than $4,000 in fees, one-tenth of the cost in Europe or America. Mostapha El-Salamony, an Egyptian doctoral student in aerodynamics at Peking University, says it is also easier to gain admission to Chinese universities and, in normal times, to secure a visa. He says he works with top-class scientists and equipment, and most classes for international students are taught in English. Says Ms Bourouqia, “China was and still is the best choice.”

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “School’s out”

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