Chinese AUC Students Continue to Feel the Pressures of China’s Zero-COVID Policy

By Lisa Jesudas

Collage by Sabine Besson

While COVID-19 restrictions are a distant memory in the Netherlands, Chinese AUC students find it difficult to move on from this chapter. Even though they are living abroad, China’s zero-COVID policy continues to impose hardships on them and their loved ones currently in China. 

One such student, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke to The Herring and will be referred to as Riley. Taking the Chinese culture and censorship in China into consideration, they clarify that they have a general fear of speaking out about Chinese politics: “I do admire people who talk openly, I just don’t have the courage to do that yet,” they say. 

Riley has not been able to visit their hometown in Dalian — a city in the Liaoning province of Northeastern China — since January of 2021 due to the risk of being quarantined indefinitely. As they complete their studies in Amsterdam, reading news about the worsening situation back home takes a mental toll: “It’s a really deep pain in me that I do not know how to deal with,” they say. 

The Chinese government remains adamant in maintaining a zero-COVID campaign. This constitutes sporadic lockdowns and quarantines across various Chinese regions as new COVID-19 variants result in more cases. “I’m super angry about how much they [the Chinese government] think they can control people,” they say, continuing, “It’s becoming a bit ridiculous.” Riley’s family underwent a full lockdown for over a month, as recently as March to April of 2022. 

Riley has heard first-hand accounts of many in the community who cannot survive this relentless way of life due to the harsh restrictions. To cope with the mental weight of hearing these stories, Riley has tried to mentally distance themself from home. They sometimes entertain the idea of changing their passport by living abroad long enough in order to cut some ties with China. “It’s a kind of coping mechanism,” they explain.

Nonetheless, Riley emphasises that they are one of the lucky ones. They feel grateful to have a healthy family with the financial means to support themselves, and Riley never takes their freedom in the Netherlands for granted. 

For Qing Yu, a first-year Science major from the Southeastern Chinese region of Suzhou, this freedom was a source of discomfort when she first arrived in the Netherlands in August of 2022. She was not accustomed to the relaxed outlook towards the virus and felt uneasy: “I was quite scared when people sat next to me and coughed a lot,” she says. 

Yu slowly adapted to feel relatively safe amidst the lack of restrictions, but she remains vigilant of her health and routinely drinks traditional Chinese medicine. She is glad to have the privilege of an unconfined university life, in comparison to her friends studying in Suzhou who are currently under quarantine in hotel rooms. She believes that “university life should be colourful” and is upset that her friends are missing out on the experience. 

Yu feels torn by the stark contrast between the realities in China and The Netherlands. Upon explaining the lack of mask-wearing and social distancing in Amsterdam to her family and friends in China, they urged her to protect herself and found it difficult to accept this level of freedom. Yu notes that this highlights how Chinese culture plays a significant role in the Chinese government’s zero-COVID approach: “Chinese people have the feeling that we need to listen to people in power,” she says, continuing, “We’re used to obeying.”

Frank Xu, a third-year Social Science major who is also from Suzhou, explains how the zero-COVID policy is affecting his future plans of returning to China. “The struggle is that I have to stay here [in the Netherlands] for a long time,” he says, referring to the added financial burden of increased flight prices that have prevented him from going home as well. He does not plan to live in China for at least another four to five years if the Chinese government maintains the zero-COVID policy.

On Sunday 16 October, Chinese president Xi Jinping emphasised the essentiality of the zero-COVID policy. It appears that this strategy against the disease will not end anytime soon. 

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