Students, expats jostle for limited flights out of Shanghai in wake of lockdown

Travellers bid farewell to friends and family at Shanghai Pudong airport.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Students and expatriates in China are rushing to fly abroad after Shanghai’s largest airport opened to a handful of international flights this week, as the city gradually recovers from a two-month lockdown and the country eases inbound quarantine rules.

At Shanghai Pudong International Airport on Wednesday (June 29), once one of the busiest aviation hubs in the world, crowds of Chinese students were preparing to go back to overseas universities where offline classes are resuming, and foreigners were heading out of the country to escape China’s rigid Covid-19 restrictions.

“It’s certainly exciting to be able to go abroad again,” said Jason Cao, a Newcastle University student who came from Taizhou, a city in eastern Jiangsu province, about a three hours’ drive from Shanghai.

Although it is Cao’s fourth year studying at the school in New South Wales, Australia, it will only be his second time on campus as classes moved online after Covid-19 became a worldwide pandemic in 2020, and did not resume in person until this year.

“I should have been on a flight back in 2020, but instead I just took online classes at home for two years,” said the 23-year-old. He is flying out a few weeks ahead of the start of the new term in mid-July to make preparations.

Demand for international flights is expected to increase in coming months after universities in popular destinations for Chinese students – such as the UK, US and Australia – announced schedules to restart offline classes for the new term in August and September, as the countries brought the impact of Covid-19 under control.

On Thursday, Air China, one of the country’s major airlines, said it has resumed weekly flights to Stockholm, Milan, Madrid, Warsaw, Manila, Dubai, Phnom Penh and Kathmandu.

Chinese students and expats queue up to fly abroad after international flights resumed at Shanghai’s airport. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Still, flights overseas remain very limited. Only about 10 international flights were scheduled out of Pudong airport on Wednesday, compared with dozens of domestic flights departing the same day.

Although most other countries have opened up to overseas travel, China maintains strict restrictions for such travellers. According to official policy, Chinese citizens are discouraged from travelling abroad unless “necessary”, which in practice has ruled out outbound trips for tourism or leisure.

All outbound travellers need to present negative nucleic acid tests taken within 48 hours as well as valid air tickets to enter airport terminals.

Zhu Jiaren, a 23-year-old Shanghai resident set to begin study in July for her literature arts degree at the University of Edinburgh, said she had to cancel her flight twice before boarding on Wednesday. She was not able to get a UK visa until Tuesday because the local application process was suspended during the two months of lockdown in the city.

“I’m one of the luckiest [among Chinese students] as I got my visa just in time, otherwise I would have had to cancel the flight a third time,” said Zhu.

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Eric Zhang, a 24-year-old who studies engineering at the University of Melbourne said, “I’ve been taking online classes for so long that I’m almost dumb.” He drove for hours from Nanjing city in neighbouring Jiangsu province to catch a flight on Wednesday night.

The desire to leave is shared by expatriates in the country, who faced additional difficulties living under China’s rigid Covid-19 restrictions.

Sarah, a 30-year-old German who has worked in Shenyang city in northeastern Liaoning province over the past three years, said she experienced difficulties using the digital Covid pass operated by Liaoning authorities, which was more complicated for expats to apply for.

Declining to give her surname due to privacy reasons, Sarah also found it inconvenient to travel to other Chinese cities given the various local restrictions.

“It will be a relief to meet with my family again,” Sarah told the Post at the airport. “With the pandemic ongoing [in China], everything is getting more and more difficult. I never expected this when I first came here [in 2019],” she said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.