As the strictly implemented Zero COVID policy began to bite China’s economy, Premier Li Keqiang has promised to relax restrictions on international travel in an “orderly way”, including facilitation of the return of thousands of stranded foreign students to return to rejoin Chinese colleges.
Li’s comments to permit the return of the students are regarded as significant as around five lakh foreign students studying at Chinese universities, including over 23,000 Indians, were stranded in their respective countries in the last two years due to China’s COVID visa bans.
China will make its COVID control measures more targeted and well-calibrated under the premise of ensuring safety against COVID infections, including steadily improving visa and COVID testing policies, and further resuming and increasing international passenger flights in an orderly way, Chinese Premier Li said.
“All international students may return to China to continue their studies should they so wish, and outbound commerce and trade activities and cross-border travel for labour services will be advanced in an orderly fashion,” Li told a Special Virtual Dialogue with Global Business Leaders hosted by the World Economic Forum on Tuesday.
“This will promote personnel inter-flow and exchanges and cooperation between China and the world,” he was quoted as saying by an official press release.
This is the first time a comment on the relaxation of international travel was made at the top of the Chinese leadership level.
Under the zero COVID policy, China had cut international flight connectivity drastically in the last two years to insulate itself from the coronavirus which first surfaced in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
China is currently processing the list of hundreds of Indian students wanting to return to the country to re-join their colleges.
Over 23,000 Indian students mostly studying medicine are reportedly stuck back home due to COVID visa restrictions. India has submitted a list of several hundred students after China sought the names of those wanting to return immediately to pursue their studies.
Some stranded students from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Russia and several other countries began arriving on chartered flights in the recent few weeks.
China is also permitting flights from different countries but not yet from India. Reportedly, the two countries are in talks to restore limited flights between the two countries.
Li’s promise to open up China came as the Chinese economy was hit hard by the zero COVID policy resulting in prolonged lockdowns of top cities damaging businesses and industrial supply chains.
The world’s second-largest economy has contracted sharply in the second quarter plunging to 0.4 per cent, the lowest in two years, according to the official data released on July 15.
It is the lowest growth rate since China’s economy shrank by 6.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 after the coronavirus which surfaced in Wuhan and later spread to the world shut down most parts of the country.
The slowdown of the economy comes ahead of the ruling Communist Party of China’s key once-in-a-five-year congress expected to be held shortly, which is widely expected to endorse an unprecedented third term for President Xi Jinping.
Xi, 68, will be the only Chinese leader after party founder Mao Zedong to continue in power for more than two-five years terms and perhaps for life.