Apr 30, 2020 04:57 AM

The Homecoming Plight Facing Chinese Stranded in Russia

Passengers on a plane at Xi'an Xianyang international airport on April 1.
Passengers on a plane at Xi'an Xianyang international airport on April 1.

Thousands of Chinese merchants and others working in Russia may be stuck there as Chinese authorities struggle to prevent sick travelers from reigniting the Covid-19 pandemic amid a tenuous recovery.

Travelers must present test results showing they were free of the deadly coronavirus within 72 hours of boarding Air China flights from Moscow to China under a government policy taking effect May 1, according to the Chinese embassy in Russia. The move may strand many Chinese nationals who are eager to return home for medical care.

The easing of the domestic outbreak has allowed a steady reopening across China more than two months after the world’s most populous country locked down cities nationwide to fight the first wave of the pandemic. China now faces mounting pressure to control imported cases. There were 22 new infections Tuesday in China, 21 of which involved travelers from abroad, the National Health Commission said Wednesday.

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Caixin’s coverage of the new coronavirus

Since early April, dozens of Covid-19 cases were found among passengers on several Air China flights arriving from Moscow. The weekly flight CA910 is the only one remaining in operation between the two countries amid the pandemic.

Chinese living in Russia fear that China’s largest neighbor is running out of medical resources, according to a Chinese merchant in Moscow. The pandemic is raging in Russia as the country has recorded more than 99,000 cases and nearly 980 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

China and Russia temporary closed their land border crossings in the northeast earlier this month. Suifenhe, a small Chinese town where the two countries have a border crossing, implemented a strict lockdown after many Chinese returning from Russia were found to have contracted the virus.

Health authorities in northwest China’s Shaanxi province reported 20 new confirmed infections and five asymptomatic cases among passengers on a CA910 flight that landed at the provincial capital Xi’an Monday. All travelers arriving there are required to take a virus test before they can transfer to other Chinese cities.

All of the newly confirmed patients were Chinese nationals. A total of 148 people, all passengers on the flight, were placed under isolation for further medical observation, the provincial health commission said.

Many Chinese merchants in Russia, especially those who suspect they may be infected, worry that they won’t be able to get treatment in Russia and want to return to China, a Moscow-based trader told Caixin.

There were about 160,000 Chinese nationals in Russia, according to China’s ambassador to Moscow, Zhang Hanhui, in an April 7 interview with China’s state broadcaster. Many of them are merchants who worked at Moscow’s Lyublino and Sadovod markets.

Clusters of infection have emerged at the two markets. According to Zhang, mass testing organized by the embassy of 300 Chinese business people found 96 positive results. The markets were closed in late March for the outbreak.

A Chinese businessman calling himself Kai was among the 20 CA910 passengers who were confirmed infected upon arrival Monday in Xi’an and were hospitalized.

“I had some symptoms (back in Russia) and was scared. I came back for treatment,” said Kai, a trader at the Lyublino market.

Kai said he started to experience diarrhea and lose the sense of smell in mid-April. But without symptoms including high fever and breathing difficulties, most patients in Russia are not admitted to hospitals.

Most of the passengers on the flight were Chinese merchants in Russia and wore protective gear during the trip, Kai said. They took multiple body temperature tests before boarding and during the flight. Some passengers admitted to crew that they took medicine to control body temperature before the flight. About seven people showed fevers during the flight and were isolated in the rear of the cabin, Kai said.

His economy-class ticket cost 14,800 yuan ($2,090), compared with the normal price of less than 3,000 yuan, Kai said. Options for returning to China have become limited since Russia halted most international flights last month.

Kai lived in a hotel in Moscow that housed more than 600 Chinese and was run by Chinese owners. At least 67 residents tested positive for the virus in the hotel, a person with knowledge told Caixin Tuesday.

While Kai said he was lucky to catch the last April flight to China, others waiting to travel said they are worried they may be unable to make it home. A Chinese student in Moscow who booked a ticket for the May 10 flight said she is worried she will be unable to obtain the required test result before her flight due to limited access to testing in Russia.

Contact reporter Han Wei ( and editor Bob Simison (

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