Bucharest, Romania – China began evacuating its citizens from Ukraine within days of Russia invading the country on February 24.
Last week, China’s foreign ministry said it had completed the evacuation effort, getting more than 5,000 Chinese nationals out of the war-torn country.
But what Beijing has described as a triumphant success – the state-run Global Times tabloid reported the evacuation had concluded “perfectly” – proved to be a costly endeavour for those involved, putting evacuees under significant financial and mental stress.
The Chinese government charged evacuees, many of them students, about 18,000 yuan ($2,830) each to board charter flights out of Romania and Poland to various Chinese cities.
Once in China, they had to undergo between 14 and 28 days of quarantine in designated hotels, also at their own expense. Faced with bills of more than $5,000 in some cases, some evacuees said they had even reconsidered their plans to return home.
In Bucharest, some Chinese citizens signed a petition on yibaochina.com calling on Beijing to subsidise the flights or provide accommodation for evacuees to stay in Romania.
“It’s unreasonably expensive. We are students,” one woman who was boarding a charter flight from Otopeni, near Bucharest, to Hangzhou last month, told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Including the costs of quarantine, which vary depending on the hotel and city, evacuees could expect to shoulder costs in excess of $5,000 – close to China’s median disposable income per capita, which reached $5,520 in 2021, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to questions from Al Jazeera about the costs of evacuating citizens from Ukraine.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on March 28 that the country’s evacuation mission had been completed “for now”, with 5,200 Chinese citizens evacuated to countries neighbouring Ukraine.
About 4,600 of those returned to China on 20 charter flights, Wang said.
The first flight left Bucharest for the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou on March 4, with the last flight departing the Romanian capital on March 27 for the southeastern city of Fuzhou.
Among the destination cities was Shenyang in north China, which notoriously enforces the world’s longest quarantine of 28 days.
Evacuees who flew to Shenyang wrote on Weibo, China’s heavily-censored answer to Twitter, that they were charged 530 yuan ($83) per night for an individual room.
While many Chinese people who live abroad or have children studying abroad are considered wealthy, the costs were enough for some to pass up the chance to return home.
On Weibo, one woman posted a video explaining she had made the decision to stay in Europe after learning the total cost of flights and quarantine for her family would amount to about 80,000 yuan ($12,570).
“Yesterday, we were making plans for what to do when we’re back,” she said in the video. “Today, after hearing the news about the price, we changed our minds because we can live a life here in Europe with 80,000 yuan.”
Governments charging their citizens to be evacuated from a conflict area has been a thorny issue in the past.
The US Department of State caused an uproar in August when it announced that US citizens seeking flights out of Afghanistan would have to sign promissory notes for about $2,000, while non-US citizens would be required to pay even more. Following a backlash, the department backtracked and announced the evacuations would be free.
While China is the only country known to be charging for evacuation from Ukraine, most other governments have left it to their citizens to make their own way out of the country.
India and Ghana are among a handful of countries reported to have arranged emergency flights out of Ukraine free of charge.
Nonetheless, some Chinese Internet users have drawn unfavourable comparisons between Beijing’s handling of the crisis and responses elsewhere.
“This is not a business; this is an evacuation,” said one Weibo user. “And even if not free, a lower price would be better.”
Meanwhile, Chinese state media has repeatedly praised the evacuation effort, despite criticism of the cost and the fact that Beijing only advised its citizens to leave after the invasion had already started.
On Thursday, the Global Times described the evacuation as a “miraculously successful operation … showing the country’s resolve, mobility and cohesion amid crisis.”
Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of China studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described the Chinese government’s characterisation of the evacuation as an unqualified success as “standard practice”.
“It’s very important for them to stick to this claim, that they are super-efficient in evacuating their citizens,” Lam told Al Jazeera.
Asking citizens to cover their own evacuation expenses may have simply been a pragmatic decision, given the cost of transporting a large number of people, Lam said.
Indeed, some evacuees and social media users have defended the practice.
“Why would you expect our government to pay for you?” one Weibo user said. “It’s your responsibility because you chose to study in Ukraine, and the country has long been at risk of war since it has had a conflict with Russia.”
For Cao Shao, a medical student at a Kyiv university who flew out of Romania last month, the cost was a minor issue compared with the stress and trauma of trying to escape Ukraine.
“We think it’s expensive, but most foreign students have to pay for expensive plane tickets anyway,” Shao Al Jazeera. “Money is not a problem.”