Chinese Students In U.S.: Between COVID-19 And Geopolitics

Chinese students in front of a departure board at Dresden Airport, where numerous flights are cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Chinese students in front of a departure board at Dresden Airport, where numerous flights are cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Wang Sui, Zhang Baiwu and Zeng Tongxin

BEIJING — On March 14th, Zhang Yuqing, a Chinese student studying in Chicago, finally made his way back home to Beijing. He had prepared ten N95 masks and a hand sanitizer for the trip that involved several airport connections and dozens of hours of travelling.

As a volunteer of the "Million Masks North America Support Team" which coordinates the online donations of protective material from Chinese people living in North America to Hubei Province, he had never imagined that — just one month later — he would also become a "disaster victim" of the COVID-19.

The US had been the first country to have withdrawn its citizens from China, which was followed on Jan. 24 by banning all foreign nationals who had been to China in the previous 14 days from entering its territory. There were fewer than 100 coronavirus infection cases known in the US at the end of February. In the following month, this number has sharply risen beyond 60,000.

Also on March 14th, Jiang Yuxin, who studies in Massachusetts, was waiting at the airport for her flight to the southeastern Chinese city of Shenzhen. It was on March 10th that Mount Holyoke College where she studies issued an emergency notification saying the school dormitory was to be shut and all students were to leave.

"I was absolutely devastated," Jiang told the Initium. At the same time, compared with the Chinese students' nervousness, she was stunned by her American peers' obliviousness to an imminent disaster: "They were convinced the coronavirus is just another flu and they even protested to the school authorities against the shutdown."

With a ticket that cost her $4,500, Jiang left on a flight at 01:15. Before embarking she read carefully the safety tips sent to her by her parents, including wearing two layers of socks to have another pair on after going through the security check, to sterilize the luggage trolley and passport, and to wear a disposable raincoat.

"And don't forget to wear your mask properly. If you are sick, we'll all get it!" said her parents.

As the Initium checked through all the booking websites, nearly all non-stop flights returning to China from major cities such as New York and Los Angeles at the end of March and early April have been cancelled. The rest of flights need one or more transits, through countries such as Japan and South Korea that also require transit visas.

Not everybody is able or can afford to go home. Hu Bufan studies in a prestigious university in the central United States and is worried that returning to China may disrupt her education plans. She majors in material biology which is a sensitive subject, so her US visa expires once a year and has to be renewed each time it expires.

Each time they leave the United States, they have to re-apply for an entry visa.

There are as many as 370,000 Chinese students studying in America, the largest international student cohort in the United States. Some 45 % of these students major in STEM subjects, i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And many are subject to single-entry visas, in particular the ones studying biotechnology, computer science, robot manufacturing applications and aerospace. Each time they leave the United States, they have to re-apply for an entry visa.


The U.S. University Stanford's Campus without students — Photo: Johnathan Nightingale

Hu says it's a time of huge uncertainty. Under the currently unstable Sino-US relations, her major puts her at risk of being refused or having to undergo a lengthy review.

Mao, a computer science major at the University of Southern California, had secured a Google internship this summer, which she now fears may be cancelled. At best, it would likely will end up being an internship via telework, missing out on the opportunity to interact face-to-face with top colleagues and to build up a network of contacts.

Tensions over the virus between the two countries have continued to grow. In mid-March, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted that it was probably the US army that had brought the coronavirus to China. President Trump refuted this claim calling it a "Chinese virus."

Since then, Andrew, a Chinese student who has been living in Boston for six years is feeling very nervous. Right from the outbreak of the coronavirus, he wore a mask when he took public transport at peak hours. But since the wide propagation in March, he has stopped doing so. "I'm worried that wearing a mask puts me at an even higher risk than that of the virus," he said to the Initium, noting the rising nationwide spread of hostility against Chinese. And an Asian wearing a mask can become a target of attack.

His feeling is shared by the abovementioned Zhang Yuqing, who studies international relations and is familiar with American history. He takes as examples the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 19th Century and the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest. To him, the growing populism since Trump came to power and the relatively low rate of gun ownership among the Chinese diaspora may make Chinese students victims of racial violence. Unable to buy a gun as a foreign student, he bought pepper spray and a bulletproof vest instead.

(In accordance with interviewees' requests, Jiang Yuxin, Zeng Tong, Hu Bufan and Zhang Yuqing are all pseudonms.)

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch is delivering a concise, once-a-day global update on the coronavirus pandemic from the best international news sources, regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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