As a fresh college graduate majoring in Russian, Constantin He, 27, arrived in Moscow in the summer of 2015 to work on a high-speed railway project symbolizing the warming ties between China and Russia.
However, his career in Russia was put on hold last week, when he was not allowed to return to the Russian capital after visiting his family in China during the Lunar New Year holidays.
Despite a valid work visa, He remains in China because Russian authorities, in a proactive effort to contain the deadly coronavirus, have banned Chinese citizens from entering the country for work, private visit, educational and tourist purposes.
Local authorities in Moscow have since stepped up the inspection of Chinese nationals using the city’s public transportation system. The mayor’s office said the inspections are being carried out to ensure that all foreigners, including Chinese, have adhered to the requirement of self-isolation for at least 14 days after arrival.
Nearly 3,000 people have died and more than 80,000 have fallen ill worldwide since the outbreak began in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December and quickly spread to other Chinese cities.
After working nearly half a decade in Russia, He finds it difficult to understand how Russian authorities could introduce such sweeping measures that affect so many healthy Chinese citizens.
“This new policy was introduced all of a sudden,” he said. “And it’s a bit too harsh because many people could be affected, including those who study and work in Russia.”
The high-speed railway project is designed to link Moscow with Kazan, about 470 miles to the east. But more than four years after initial agreement, financing details have yet to be finalized.
“We don’t even know if this new railway will be built or not,” He said. “Maybe I should have understood the nature of the friendship between Russia and China a long time ago. Despite the warm signals during high-level meetings, I have always faced all kinds of issues even when trying to renew my work visa each year.”
According to He, the number of Chinese staff members working in Moscow on the project has dropped from a few dozen to about 15. The recent travel ban has stranded three of the eight Chinese employees who returned to China for the New Year’s holidays.
Sophia Cao, a second-year doctoral student at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, planned to travel to Miami in March to deliver a report at a conference hosted by the Comparative International Education Society.
But under the ban, Cao wouldn’t be able to return.
“If I can’t attend the conference, I don’t even know if I can pass the annual academic assessment in June,” she said.
“Targeting Chinese nationals, it’s not a scientific way to prevent the epidemic and very difficult to understand. This virus will not just infect Chinese. It could infect anyone.”
Some Chinese students who had recently returned to Moscow shared stories in social media groups about local police officers visiting their homes late at night.
Lucy Liu, a 24-year-old Chinese tourist, said she was stopped by police officers at a subway station Monday evening. After realizing that Liu broke the 14-day self-isolation requirement, the officers called an ambulance and took her to a hospital designated as a quarantine site.
Liu said she was being quarantined in a room with three other Chinese students who recently returned from China.
According to social media posts from Chinese nationals living in Moscow, others who have not traveled to China in recent years have also been stopped for questioning.
Russia plans to deport foreigners who violate quarantine orders, Anastasia Rakova, the city’s deputy mayor for social development said Friday. This move would make Russia the first country in the world to deport Chinese nationals amid the global coronavirus outbreak.
Russian political analysts say the country’s border control system may be a large part of the problem.
“They usually treat people according to their nationality,” said Vasily Kashin, a China expert at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Moscow. “They don’t believe they can accurately track if you’ve recently been somewhere or not.”
The ban came as a surprise to many at a time of warming bilateral ties. And China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has emphasized that the measures are only temporary.
Geng added that Russia notified China about its decision to introduce the new travel restrictions before making the public announcement.
The response stands in contrast to that on a similar measure introduced by the United States banning entry of all foreigners who traveled to China in the previous 14 days.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said the U.S. “inappropriately overreacted.”
The Russian ban reflects vulnerabilities in its healthcare system, Kashin said.
“The reason for this [the entry ban] is the limited capacity of the Russian quarantine system,” he said. “We basically explained this to the Chinese. They’re not happy, but they understand it’s not the result of some bad intent, but the result of certain weaknesses of the Russian healthcare system.”
Russia is still allowing Chinese nationals holding business and humanitarian visas to enter the country, as well as those who have obtained Russian temporary or permanent residence permit.
Students are in a different category.
Vera Xie, a 26-year-old studen at the Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, was not allowed to board the flight she booked for Saturday.
Xie initially bought a round-trip ticket to leave Russia on Jan. 15 and return on Feb. 12. But earlier travel restrictions introduced by Russian authorities required all passengers from China arriving in Russia to land in Moscow, forcing Xie to book a new flight for Saturday.
As news of the deadly new coronavirus spread further in Russia, Xie said a small group of Russian users began to post xenophobic messages on social media.
“There is a small island in St. Petersburg where many restaurants and KTV [karaoke] bars are owned by Chinese. I have seen some Russians started a petition to expel Chinese businesses from the island,” she said.
Such sentiment against Chinese nationals in Russia is unlikely to be addressed by the Chinese Embassy, Xie added.
“I think it’s very rare to see Chinese people trying to express our concerns through the official channels. In Russia, when we face troubles, we have never thought about seeking assistance from Chinese authorities,” she said.
The Russian press has reported the death of a 45-year-old Chinese citizen in the Kursk region of Russia and speculated it could be related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Authorities in the region said the man was found with stab wounds to his neck after having been discharged from a local hospital where he had received treatment for a respiratory infection.
However, the Chinese Embassy in Moscow said on its official WeChat account that the case was not related to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Both Cao and Xie said most Russians were still very friendly toward them and their friends.
“I think it’s a quite strange decision, or even discrimination. The virus doesn’t come from a specific nationality, but comes from people who have been to China. If we decide to close the border, we should target those who traveled to China recently, not just Chinese people,” said Daria, a 21-year-old Russian student majoring in Asian Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Daria only gave her first name over fears of retribution from authorities.
After learning the Chinese language for four years, Daria helps manage a social media account called Gray Mocha, which focused on introducing Chinese culture in Russia.
Daria has encouraged users to post messages expressing solidarity with China.
On the popular Russian social media platform VK.com, the hashtag “China, we are with you” has been trending.
“Chinese people are not the same as the coronavirus,” Daria said. “We want to protect our brothers and sisters in China from such criticism or discrimination.”
Yang is a special correspondent.