China has said it "cannot relax pandemic controls" to facilitate foreign travel, signalling that there are no immediate plans to permit over four lakh foreign students, including more than 23,000 Indians, mostly studying medicine in Chinese universities.
Li Bin, vice-minister of the National Health Commission, said authorities would continue to focus on preventing imported infections from spreading locally and strengthen inspection of imported goods.
"Some cities have recently seen local clusters caused by imported cases of the Delta variant, including in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Ruili," he told reporters in Beijing on Thursday.
"These waves have reminded us that we cannot relax our pandemic control measures," Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted him as saying.
Ruili, a city on the Myanmar border, went into lockdown on Wednesday as authorities try to keep a lid on China's latest COVID-19 outbreak, which has been linked to the Delta strain.
Li's comments came as the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Friday parried questions on growing calls to permit the return of over four lakh foreign students from different parts of the world to resume their studies as they are stuck in their countries since last year.
Calls for China to permit the return of the students grew louder not only from India but different countries as the frustrated students earlier this month wrote to Chinese President Xi Jinping, seeking his intervention to permit their return to their universities.
China International Student Union – an organisation campaigning for the return of foreign students to China – wrote an open letter to Xi, stating that foreign students were in "grave desperation".
The union drew upon comments Xi made in 2010, when he referred to foreign students as "forever, a friend of China", the Post reported earlier.
"Today these forever friends of China are in a precarious situation that only China can remedy. Our education is on the line, our future is at stake," the letter reads.
China for its part has been maintaining that the online classes were being conducted to the students by the universities, while parrying questions about permitting their return, citing the spread of pandemic in different countries.
But the online classes had little impact on over 23,000 Indian medical students as they needed to back up their studies with laboratory facilities.
Frustrations for the foreign students grew as hundreds of Chinese students studying in the US universities began rushing back after Washington opened the visa process to facilitate their return.
On Friday, an Arab journalist asked the Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin when will China allow the international students to return as many students from Arab countries want to resume their studies.
He reiterated that the Chinese government has attached great importance to the issue of foreign students coming to China, and will make overall considerations for the return of foreign students to China under the premise of ensuring the safety of epidemic prevention.
When pressed further on the growing frustration of foreign students, including those from India, Wang said: "On the basis of ensuring safety amid COVID-19, we will consider in a coordinated manner an arrangement for allowing foreign students to return to China for their studies."
"At the same time, I stress again that in light of the evolving epidemic situation, China will decide on prevention and control measures in a coordinated way based on scientific analysis.
"We stand ready to work actively towards the healthy, safe and orderly cross-border flow of people on the basis of sound epidemic measures," he said.
Indian diplomats in Beijing said that they have taken up with the Chinese government both at the level of foreign ministry and the education ministry about the plight of Indian students stuck at home and their pleas to return with an undertaking to follow all the specified protocols.
"As noted in its previous communications, the Embassy of India in Beijing has continued to follow up closely with Chinese authorities, including the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China, regarding the concerns of Indian students in China, especially their early return to colleges/universities in this country," the Indian Embassy said in a statement on March 22.
It is not only the Indian students but those from countries like Pakistan, which have close ties with China, have not been permitted to return.
Pakistani students, who make up the third largest group of foreign students in China, are also suffering, a recent report in the Post said.
It quoted Waseem Iqbal, a third-year PhD student from Pakistan studying at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who left China in December 2019 and has since been unable to find a job or withdraw money because all his documents are still at his university.
"I need to take care of (my parents), buy medicine. I worry that, God forbid, if something happens, I have nothing," the Post quoted him as saying.
Over 4.40 lakh foreign students from various parts of the world studied in China. This included over 23,000 Indian students, mostly studying medicine in various Chinese medical colleges after paying heavy fees.
Officials say China has to permit the return of the foreign students either by September this year or by April next year at the start of the new academic year.
Also, China is extremely cautious as it made preparations for the winter Olympics to be held in February next year.
China, which has broadly controlled the coronavirus after it first reported in Wuhan in 2019, is currently vaccinating its people at a hectic pace. As of now, it has administered about 1.34 billion doses of vaccines.
Officials expect China, which has over 1.4 billion people, to vaccinate about 70 per cent of its people by early next year to achieve herd immunity. Until then, China may continue to stonewall foreign travel.