Screenshots from Yang’s video
As the coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, especially in Western countries such as Italy and the U.S., a growing number of Chinese students studying abroad have been racing to return home to China, where the outbreak is believed to be under control after causing more than 3,000 deaths.
In a bid to reduce the risk of imported COVID-19 infections causing a second wave of the disease, Chinese authorities in most cities have implemented a rule that requires arrivals from overseas — both Chinese citizens and foreigners — to complete 14 days of isolation at designated quarantine facilities.
But despite this mandatory preventive measure, many Chinese students who have made the journey back to China have found themselves on the receiving end of intense criticism on social media, with some extreme comments accusing them of harming the country’s efforts to curb the epidemic and exploiting local medical resources without contributing anything.
Among the students under attack is Weibo user @淘学小杨 (táo xué xiǎo yáng, Little Yang studying overseas), who arrived in Shanghai from Italy on March 5 and has since been quarantined in a local hotel. On March 11, Yang shared a video on Weibo, depicting what he called “an arduous trip.” In the two-minute clip, Yang can be seen having his temperature checked while boarding his flight, waiting in several inspection lines upon arrival, and being sent to a hotel for quarantine.
At the end of the video, Yang shared a comforting message for viewers, assuring them that he would limit his contact with people for the sake of public health. “I know going back to China at this moment is controversial, But if you are watching this, please rest assured that I will completely quarantine myself.”
Much to Yang’s surprise, his video quickly drew an onslaught of negative comments (in Chinese), including vehement criticism that Yang is a selfish opportunist who acted in his personal interest at the cost of the national well-being of China.
The most upvoted comment on Weibo reads: “Why did you come back? So your foreign dad is not as good as you thought?” Another Weibo user wrote: “The quarantine seems like a vacation for you. Luxury hotel, single room, wifi, food…you are in luck!”
“Did it ever cross your mind that because of students like you, some provinces that almost eradicated the virus have seen new infections? You’ve ruined the tremendous amount of efforts made by medical workers and Chinese people in the past two months,”wrote another critic on Weibo.
The worries, to some degree, can be justified. According to the Guardian, on March 18, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) reported zero domestically transmitted cases in the country for the first time since the virus emerged in late December. The new cases discovered in the past week were mostly recent overseas arrivals, Reuters reports. As of March 19, the capital reported a total of 64 imported cases, of which 27 were students arriving from abroad, per the Beijing News (in Chinese).
To further complicate things, some Chinese travellers have made national headlines for hiding information about their travel history to coronavirus-affected countries or violating quarantine regulations. On March 11, Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, recorded (in Chinese) a new coronavirus patient surnamed Zhao, who had spent time in places like Milan and Abu Dhabi in the first week of this month. After his return, Zhao lied about his trip when confronted by police and went back to work with coronavirus symptoms.
This week, a Chinese student studying in the U.S. found herself at the center of a Weibo firestorm after viral videos (in Chinese) showing her family having an altercation with a security guard who refused to let the student in to their residential compound, because she had not gone to a quarantine facility after her arrival on March 18. While the local government later explained that, as a teenager, the student was advised to undergo home quarantine, she still remains a subject of criticism on the Chinese internet because of her “irresponsible behavior.” “You played no part in constructing our country. Now you traveled miles to infect your people in China!” an internet user wrote with outrage.
As news about imported infections intensified, people feeling strongly about the topic began sharing their views under the Weibo hashtag #留学生该不该回国 (liúxuéshēng gāi bù gāi huíguó, Should Chinese students abroad come back or not), which has been viewed over 200 million times and generated more than 30,000 comments since earlier this week. “Everyone knows that you guys left China in pursuit of the ‘freedom’ that you liked. Now you are coming back for free healthcare? How shameless! Don’t return if you don’t love your country from the bottom of your heart!” said one typical comment.
The hashtag also inspired hordes of supportive messages from people who empathize with the students caught in limbo due to the coronavirus. “This is not even a contentious topic in my eyes. These students are Chinese and many of them are underage. They probably felt so anxious and stressed by coronavirus news when studying abroad alone. I totally welcome them to come back as long as they abide by quarantine rules,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).
Even the Communist Party’s house newspaper, the People’s Daily decided to weigh in on the controversy. In an editorial (in Chinese) published on March 18, the newspaper expresses concerns about the public discourse that uses “extreme cases” to generalize about Chinese students studying abroad and stereotype overseas Chinese as traitors or an evil force detrimental to China. “When COVID-19 is ravaging the rest of the world, China is their safe haven. It’s their right to return to the embrace of their motherland. Meanwhile it’s China’s responsibility to protect them,” it wrote.