Beijing, Jul 22 (PTI) China continued to be ambivalent about permitting the return of over 23,000 Indian students, mostly studying medicine in the country, amid reports that Beijing is allowing students from South Korea and the US to return.

Asked about whether China would permit the return of the Indian students too in the same way their counterparts from South Korea and the US were allowed, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian on Thursday reiterated that Beijing would study the matter in a coordinated manner.

“Under the precondition of ensuring safety amid the COVID-19 epidemic, China will study in a coordinated manner the matter of allowing foreign students to come to China,” he said.

Pressed further on the issue, he said, “I want to reiterate that China will take prevention and control measures through scientific analysis in light of the evolving situation.” “On the basis of ensuring safety, China stands ready to work actively to foster healthy, safe and orderly personnel exchanges with other countries,” he said.

China is reportedly relaxing its travel permits to some countries on bilateral understanding by following certain COVID-19 protocols while blocking the return of students from the vast majority of countries from Asia and Africa.

Over 4.40 lakh foreign students from various parts of the world study in China. This included over 23,000 Indian students mostly studying medicine in various Chinese medical colleges after paying heavy fees. They were stuck in their home countries after they left the country during the peak of coronavirus cases in Wuhan early last year.

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.

Li Bin, vice-minister of the National Health Commission, said on July 9 that China “cannot relax pandemic controls" to facilitate foreign travel in view of the recurring coronavirus cases in the country though on a smaller scale compared to a number of other countries.

Meanwhile, students from various countries, including India and the Middle East are pressing their governments to take up their issue with the Chinese government and help them to return to join their studies.

Frustrated students early this month had written 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”.

Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post has recently quoted stranded Pakistani students appealing to the Chinese government to permit them to return to China to continue their studies.

China for its part has been maintaining that the online classes were being conducted for 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 US universities began rushing back after Washington opened the visa process to facilitate their return.

Indian diplomats here said that they have taken up the matter with the Chinese government both at the level of the foreign ministry and the education ministry about the plight of Indian students stuck back at home and their pleas to return with an undertaking to follow all the specified protocols.

China which has broadly controlled the coronavirus after it broke from Wuhan in 2019 and is currently vaccinating its people at a hectic pace.

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, they said.