Students take photos at the University of Melbourne on its open day in 2014. （Photo: Global Times）
After eight months of waiting, Valerie Wang (pseudonym) finally decided to abandon her dream of studying for a PhD in Australia. Instead, she's thinking of applying to British schools.
"Even though my mentor and my school (in Australia) are extremely nice, the visa issue cannot be solved due to political reasons," the 22-year-old from China's Jiangxi Province told the Global Times. "I have to develop a new life plan now. It might be a bit late, but it's time I faced reality."
Last year, Wang was accepted by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to study mechanical engineering, with funding from the China Scholarship Council (CSC) under the Ministry of Education. As CSC scholarships are government-backed, she thought she would have a smooth application process.
However, after she sent her visa application last August, she received no news, no updates and no further information. Wang is not the only one; over 100 Chinese applicants are also sitting idly by while waiting for their visas.
This uncertainty has severely affected their lives. Some applicants told the Global Times that they have quit their jobs or turned down offers from other schools. Now they have to prepare for a worse-case scenario.
They now believe their applications have been impacted by recent tensions in Sino-Australian relations. This incident has also drawn the attention of CSC, which declared that applicants with the center's funding can file to switch countries.
Other Chinese students who have heard about the visa trouble have expressed online that they would "vote with feet" by choosing US or Europe instead of Australia for their future studies.
Waiting with a price
Wang has been counting the days since she first submitted in her application; hardly a day goes by without her waking up in anxiety.
"I thought my visa would be ready within four months. I never imagined it would not come," she said.
No explanation was offered and the visa review process is not transparent. According to a timetable on the official Australian Home Affairs website, 90 percent of visa applications for its postgraduate research sector are usually processed within 74 days. She has waited 8 months - three times as long.
When Wang inquired with a QQ group of other Chinese applicants, she discovered that there are more than 100 people in this group alone who also have been waiting in the dark for their visas.
These students are PhD candidates both on CSC funding and Australian university scholarships, as well as visiting scholars, spanning over 10 universities. They are mostly of science or engineering majors such as robotics, chemistry or mechanical engineering. Most submitted their visa applications last summer and have been waiting for over half a year.
Wang and the others tried every way imaginable to reach out. They wrote to the Australian visa center, but only received a canned response saying the applications are undergoing routine processing, and that it can take several months to obtain any necessary health, character and security clearances from other agencies.
They have also contacted their respective schools, the Australian embassy and made complaints through an ombudsman; none of these methods have sped up the process.
"Then what else can I do? I can only wait," she said.
But waiting comes with a price. Her CSC scholarship expires at the end of March. She could extend it to September, but if she still has not received her visa by then, she will lose her qualifications and will not be able to apply again for another five years.
She thought about changing to another country, but missed the application deadline. She is a college graduate, but without a job or a graduate school to go to, her only present option is to intern for 200 yuan ($31) per day to support herself. Other applicants told the Global Times that they have quit their jobs or turned down offers from other schools, leaving themselves no choice but to wait without a transparent timetable.
"Who would've thought a visa would be the ultimate roadblock?" one said.
The students feel that their time has been wasted, their big plans messed up and the amount of money spent on applications, insurance and rent wasted.
The mentors and schools of these applicants feel equally baffled by the prolonged visa security check. According to an email Wang's mentor sent her, there is "a group of approximately 20 applicants to UNSW who have been waiting for an outcome on their visa for longer than six months, and most of these are from the engineering department."
In an email response to the Global Times, Freya Campbell, Head of Corporate Communications at UNSW, seemed also frustrated with the situation.
Her email read in part, "UNSW celebrates the key role played by higher degree research candidates in the life of our research-intensive university with over 40 percent of PhD students from overseas ... we encourage the Australian Government to maintain Australia's reputation as a world class destination for higher degree research students and recognize the importance of a rigorous yet agile visa system to enable mobility of researchers and higher degree students."
When Wang posted a message seeking help on the official Twitter account of Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, a netizen replied that "there are many Chinese 'students' in particular who are simply spies stealing patentable ideas from hardworking Aussies and their disgusting and corrupt teachers at our hopeless universities."
Another wrote, "You will have more luck finding a unicorn."
The 'silent invasion'
Though the Global Times was not able to obtain a direct response about the reasons for the visa delay from the Australian government, there is speculation that it is due in part to strains in the Sino-Australian relationship, in particular claims of Chinese penetration.
Australia's former defense secretary, Dennis Richardson, had repeatedly said that China is "actively engaged in spying," keeping a watchful eye inside Australian Chinese communities and controlling Chinese language media in Australia.
There have in turn been discussions and debates among scholars and media in both countries, as well as reports from Chinese students experiencing racial discrimination on social media.
In February, Australian scholar Clive Hamilton published a controversial new book titled Silent Invasion: China's Influence in Australia, claiming that thousands of Chinese agents have secretly infiltrated academia, business, politics and the religious establishment in Australia and that the Communist Party of China has gained so much influence that it is turning Australia into a puppet state.
During a press conference in March, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying condemned Hamilton's book, saying "China has remained committed to conducting friendly exchange and practical cooperation with other countries ... Certain individual's malicious hyping up and slander on China are completely meaningless and good for nothing."
At the same time, Australia remains a top destination for Chinese students and China a vast market for Australian educational institutions. According to The Australian newspaper, statistics show that the country's education exports in 2017 were worth 30.9 billion Australian dollars, an increase of 19.7 percent over the previous year, which is driven mostly by Chinese students.
In the face of such figures, it is even more baffling for the applicants as to why their visas are being stalled.
"We know of the discussion, but we as students are being treated unfairly. We are just doing fundamental research but we are being checked for no reason," Wang said, stressing, "All we care about is academic research."
No explanations offered
Some measures are being made on the Chinese side to amend matters. CSC staff responded to the Global Times saying that the center is aware of the matter and has contacted the Australian embassy and other government departments trying to straighten it out. However, to date they have not received any answers.
CSC also sent out a notice on its official website last week, saying, "because of adjustments in Australia's visa policies, a few applicants have been experiencing trouble in their application process with long security checks and the Australian side could not provide explanation."
The center suggested in its notice that applicants experiencing such troubles can directly contact the center, file for an extension and switch to a different country.
Wang has already started researching British schools, hoping to obtain an offer within the extended CSC deadline. However, those with Australian university scholarships are still stuck with no solution in sight.
A Chinese applicant with a scholarship from an Australian university told the Global Times that his scholarship expires in April; right now there is nothing he can do.
He has been sitting at home idly for a year after graduation and doesn't even dare to go outside, afraid of being asked why he's still back home when all his peers have gone off to schools. Furthermore, if he applies to other universities in other countries, he will have to go through the same process again, from the beginning.
"I've already given up on Australia," he said. "And I advise others who want to pursue a PhD degree to be cautious and choose [your destination country] wisely."