Chinese nationals stranded overseas have accused Beijing of abandoning them far from home as the government prioritises avoiding a second wave of coronavirus infections.
Beijing has implemented some of the strictest travel bans of any country. Very few foreigners are able to enter China and flights have been drastically limited, making it nearly impossible for many citizens to return.
A 25-year-old man surnamed Wu who works at a medical research company in Shenzhen told the Financial Times that he had been trying to return from Pakistan for six weeks. He has bought expensive plane tickets regularly but they have all been cancelled.
Mr Wu, who did not want to give his first name, fears it is more dangerous now in Pakistan than it was in China during the peak of the epidemic. “You have to rely on yourself for everything,” he said. “Lots of medical workers don’t have masks or proper protective equipment.”
He described the feeling of abandonment as being “like your own mother told you not to come home and is instead relying on someone else to take care of you”.
China’s leadership has repeatedly warned that imported cases pose the greatest risk of sparking a resurgence of Covid-19 in the country. That leaves Chinese diplomats in a tough spot, unable to help citizens return.
Zhang Hanhui, China’s ambassador to Russia, set off a fierce debate last month when he said some Chinese were “morally condemnable” after they crossed the land border between Siberia and north-east Heilongjiang in large numbers to get home.
Zhang Xin, a scholar at the East China Normal University, said the comments touched a nerve because they raised the question of whether China’s government was obliged to help nationals return, regardless of personal circumstances or the pandemic. “A lot of people do believe it is the state’s responsibility to let any resident come back to their motherland if they want,” he said.
Last month, Chinese nationals staged small-scale protests over a lack of government support outside consulates and embassies in Nepal, Dubai and Kenya, according to videos and pictures posted online.
Beijing has also been criticised by parents of students studying abroad. Despite originally advising students to remain in their host countries, the government later arranged aircraft to fly some minors home from the UK and US.
Between the start of March to April 20, the Chinese government had only organised 20 evacuation planes, far fewer than the UK, US or big European nations.
Adding to the frustrations of mainland Chinese, the Hong Kong government announced last month that it would fly residents back from India and Pakistan.
A backpacker in her twenties stuck in India was angered by the apparent double standards. “I really want to ask the Chinese embassy in India, how can they organise for Hong Kongers to go home but not for mainlanders?” asked the traveller, who did not want to be named.
She has been trying to return to China to visit her sick father since March, but has been stuck in a youth hostel in a remote village in east India, where she rarely goes out.
“I am usually proud of being Chinese, as we have a long history, but because of the poor conditions I am facing in India I feel really aggrieved,” the backpacker said.