Last year the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a massive shutdown in China just as they were beginning to celebrate their most important holiday. Also known as Spring Festival, this is an important time for family reunions all across Asian countries. Scheduled on Jan. 25 last year, many students had begun to travel home when China locked down. China’s successful stay-in-place, testing, and mobile phone-tracking-and-alert strategy allowed a return to near normal in two months. Schooling resumed and consumed summer vacation time. China and other East Asian countries assumed that families could reunite in the 2021 Lunar New Year on Feb. 12. That is now in doubt.
On Jan. 22, Mimi Leung reported in University World News how Chinese “Campuses face new lockdowns to halt spread of COVID-19.” Their Ministry had earlier established a staggered schedule so China’s university students would not all be traveling on the same days. Winter break would be Jan. 11 – Feb. 21 for Beijing’s Tsinghua University, Jan. 25 – March 7 for Peking University and Beijing Institute of Technology would begin vacation on Feb. 1st.
But this central planning is being suspended due to an increase in infections. Prior cases had been limited to imports through the Beijing airport, and at borders in northeast China with North Korea and Siberia. But new domestic cases in Beijing required a state of emergency imposed on Dec. 27 as various neighborhoods in Beijing saw outbreaks. China has returned to regional travel bans. Many students remain on Beijing campuses, restricted from leaving Beijing.
Hardest hit in this last month is Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province and just south of Beijing (not to be confused with Hubei province and Wuhan). It has seen an outbreak of over 800 COVID-19 cases in these last weeks. This is a small number compared to U.S. localities, but the success by Asian countries has been due to rapid test-and-trace, with isolation before numbers explode as they have in the West.
According to the UWN and China News Weekly, many students left their university but were then stranded when cities beyond the province also went into lockdown. Provincial officials have been directed to locate stranded students and get them to hotels where they would receive free food and accommodation.
Meanwhile, China normally has nearly 400,000 foreign students studying at their universities each year. They were mostly evacuated a year ago and remain shut out. Chinese universities, similar to Western schools, rapidly shifted to online courses. However, Study International (SI) reports that many students, similar to Western students, find “online classes are of extremely poor quality.” International students also face a time difference where a daytime class in China is in the middle of the night in their home country, which “makes online classes impossible”. And those students in medical and similar programs cannot complete any hands-on training and lab work online. SI reports that the China International Student Union that represents foreign students at over 200 universities in China, has asked China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to set a date when foreign students can return. Over 10,000 students signed the petition so far, but it is likely China will put national safety first.
These problems would have been minor in 1970s China, where only a few of their top students were able to travel far from home to attend their small number of universities. A lockdown back then would have found nearly all young adults close to home and still able to celebrate the Lunar New Year with family. Today, their massive numbers of students who score high enough to enter a much larger number of specialty universities find themselves many provinces away from parents and now facing a second year away from family. For older students who married their partner they met in graduate school, parents on both sides may likely live in different provinces—another difficulty posed by their modern university system.
Similar to the situation in the West where new graduates are having difficulty finding jobs due to the severe economic slowdown, China’s graduates are also finding it difficult to locate jobs despite China and a few other Asian countries being the only nations to have increased annual economic growth.
The Lunar New Year is still the largest travel event in the world. Last year, this travel in China fell 60 percent from travel in 2019. The official forecast this year was only 1.15 billion trips during this holiday break, which would be down 20 percent from 2020. Now that may be far lower.