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  • Elizabeth Shi

Five Ones, No Winners: Losing Faith in Wolf Warrior Spirit


“A Chinese passport can’t take you to anywhere in the world, but it can take you home from anywhere no matter what.” This rousing line is from Wolf Warrior, a nationalist action movie that has made headlines recently for inspiring an aggressive style of Chinese diplomacy in the wake of COVID-19. In actual fact, this blockbuster tells the story of a brave, chivalrous Chinese special forces soldier saving his compatriots amid a civil war in Africa. More than anything else, films such as Wolf Warrior epitomise Chinese people’s pride and faith in China, believing wherever they are, China will definitely come to their aid in times of need. 


2015 film Wolf Warrior was a hit amongst its domestic audience for depicting Chinese virtues of courage and generosity


Globalization and China’s opening up has enabled more and more Chinese people to travel, study, work and live beyond the country’s borders. At present, the world is experiencing one of the worst afflictions in human history as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the human population. The Wolf Warrior-inspired patriotism spurred the Chinese diaspora to send medical supplies and other critically important resources back to China from other places in the world when COVID-19 first broke out in Wuhan in early January - but is this support being reciprocated now that the epicentre of the virus is no longer in China but in the lands that some of China’s brightest minds have left home for?


The health concerns that have arisen with the pandemic situation - along with the staggering levels of unemployment in some countries - has prompted many Chinese citizens abroad to look to return home, either temporarily or permanently. Chinese students have been the largest group looking to fly back to the so-called motherland as they conclude their semesters in the early Summer and eagerly anticipate the opportunity to reunite with their families. With the availability of travel options hampered during these unprecedented times, Chinese abroad have been faced with three problematic main routes home: buying a ticket on official websites (extremely limited), turning to third-party agencies for tickets (extremely expensive), or waiting for an embassy chartered flight (difficult to qualify for).


Many Chinese citizens have struggled to return home from countries worst hit by COVID-19


Almost as soon as COVID-19 began to subside in China, the rest of the world was hit by the pandemic. It’s at this point that most Chinese people abroad began to think about going home, however, on March 12th, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) introduced the “Five Ones Policy”.  “Five Ones” stands for: one airline, one country, one route, one flight and one week, and represents an attempt by the Chinese government to contain the number of imported cases of the virus. The policy stipulates that each Chinese airline is only allowed to maintain one route to any specific country with no more than one flight per week and each foreign airline is only allowed to maintain one route to China. Due to the uptick in demand for flights back to China, as well as emergency regulations that require all flights to have attendances less than 75% of capacity, the ticket prices of the few fixed direct flights has tripled or worse. Some Chinese flight carriers have been accused of giving priority to those who have paid premiums for their flights: flagship airline China Eastern was left red-faced when it was forced to turn away 50 passengers at Toronto airport after failing to cancel their tickets in advance.


Given that tickets for direct flights soon sold out on official websites, many Chinese turned to the third-party agents for egregiously over-priced layover tickets. Those with the means to do so paid fees of over 10,000 USD to transfer in an "third-party" country where the demand for flights to China is relatively less than from countries such as the US and the UK. Chinese citizens abroad have accused airlines of privately collaborating with third-party agencies, so that agencies could hoard tickets in advance. Even for those fortunate enough to be able to afford tickets from third parties their paths home have rarely been without incident, as the two hundred Chinese citizens who got stuck in Ethiopia will testify to. With more countries closing their borders to foreign citizens, this option has become both increasingly unfair and increasingly treacherous.


Some have been left stranded at airports due to flight cancellations and complications


Ostensibly, the saving grace for those without the financial capacity to board commercial flights are the charted embassy flights arranged by the Chinese government. However, the priority for these flights goes to underage citizens and those who have expiring visas, ruling most out from being eligible to apply. The chartered embassy flights from the US have also found themselves at the mercy of rapidly deteriorating US-China relations. At a press conference of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 19th, China addressed complaints from Chinese expats by alleging that the US failed to approve a chartered embassy flight from New York to Chongqing (CA 566). The U.S. Department of Transportation hit back, explaining it was due to the fact that “China’s embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting the necessary flight details”. US-based Chinese all too easily saw through the exploiting of another petty conflict with the Trump administration in order to create obfuscation around its lack of plans to safely repatriate them. 


Frosty relations with the US in the wake of COVID-19 haven't helped the cause of those looking to return home


Due to the dearth of flights operating under the the Five Ones Policy, only around 3,000 Chinese citizens abroad have been able to go home per month - in the USA alone there are over 400,000 Chinese students. By stark comparison, India embarked on a massive repatriation project by utilizing jet and naval ships to bring back its nationals, despite being struck by consistently increasing cases of COVID-19. The German authorities also brought over 240 thousand citizens back home, the largest repatriation process in history. China has forged ahead of most countries in containing the pandemic, leading Chinese people abroad to question why their government has been unable to devise a workable strategy to return them to their families. Junming Cui, a Chinese student at New York University, encapsulated these frustrations: “I have many friends here in New York City, I have Korean friends, I have Japanese friends, they all flew back in April. Only mainland Chinese are stuck in this situation.


In somewhat ironic twist given the current tensions, many Chinese students abroad in particular feel better looked after by foreign institutions than their own government. Shuci Cai, who studies in the UK, shared with me an email from Goldsmiths, University of London, confirming a pledge to provide international students with wellbeing support and flight ticket reimbursement should they wish to return home. Zi Yang, a Chinese student at University of Pennsylvania, recently received a personal emergency fund from the institution, which covered a significant portion of the cost of her ticket home.


Around 700,000 Chinese students head abroad each year for higher education


Beijing has only assisted its diaspora in their quests to return home following pressure from foreign governments to open up China’s skies. This reality was laid bare last week CAAC eased its access - resulting in more flights flying from foreign countries to China - after Washington announced it would bar four Chinese airlines from the States as a retaliatory measure to China’s refusal to allow U.S. airlines to continue flying to China. “Chinese citizens and public figures have been complaining about how irrational the policy is for months yet the CAAC’s response was to disabled comments on their social platforms, close their website, and delete viral posts and videos shouting for help,” a Chinese student bemoaned on social media site Weibo, “shortly after Trump applied pressure to ensure the access for US flights to China, China loosened up. Who should I thank?” 


Chinese abroad have traditionally been the flag carriers for Chinese nationalism and “telling China’s story well” in distant lands. They have been willing to do so with the confidence that they have the backing and support of their government - particularly in crisis scenarios. The COVID-19 pandemic has left governments across the world with a plethora of decisions to make and triages to weigh up; the Chinese government's decision to abandon its citizens in order to mitigate the risk of a second wave of the virus on home soil has left many of its most valuable citizens questioning whether the nationalist sentiment derived from movies like Wolf Warrior has merely been used as a political tool. As the pandemic gradually abates, Chinese nationals will once again seek opportunities outside of the motherland. Whether they will retain the same unshakeable faith in their government’s safety net remains to be seen.



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