Universities in China have begun canceling entrance examinations for overseas students, citing coronavirus concerns, as the central city of Wuhan reported a new cluster of cases for the first time since its lockdown was lifted.
China's prestigious Peking University (Beida), Renmin University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University have all canceled exam requirements for overseas students in recent days, according to announcements on their official websites.
"To protect the health of the majority of candidates during the coronavirus pandemic ... the University has taken the decision to cancel the written examinations for international students applying to being in an undergraduate program in 2020," Beida said in an announcement on its website.
The cancellations will effectively make it far easier for international students to win places at top Chinese universities, and is likely linked to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's ongoing overseas propaganda effort, analysts said.
They said the move is likely part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's response to the recent closure of Confucius Institutes run by the Hanban under China's cabinet, the State Council, amid concerns over growing Chinese influence affecting freedom of speech on campuses far beyond China's borders.
Calls to the Beida international student office rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
The announcement came as the central Chinese city of Wuhan announced its first cluster of coronavirus infections since its lockdown was lifted last month.
Wuhan reported five new confirmed cases, all from the same residential compound, all of which had previously been classified as asymptomatic.
China's total tally of confirmed cases stood at 82,918, with 4,633 deaths, on Monday.
Education experts said there could be a less obvious reason for the cancellation of the entrance exam for foreign students.
Chinese education specialist Shi Dajun, who is also a Beida alumnus, said Chinese universities have largely become propaganda factories, rather than genuine centers of learning.
"It is not just Tsinghua or Beida; many other schools make exceptions for foreign students, which is in fact a part of China's overseas propaganda policy," Shi said.
"Now that the Confucius Institutes are running into obstacles, we are seeing them take a new direction."
The idea, according to Shi, is that international students studying in China can absorb the ruling party's message and return to spread Beijing's narrative in their own countries.
"Chinese universities .. regardless of whether they are in the arts or the sciences ... are moving more and more in the direction of functioning as propaganda units," he said.
A retired professor at Lanzhou University who gave only his surname Cai said that enticing overseas students to China is part of a long-running strategy by Beijing.
"We know that the government uses education as a form of soft power," Cai said. "It's an opportunity for citizens of other countries who admire Chinese culture to come into contact with it."
"They want it to take root in the hearts and minds of young people in Western and African nations," he said. "This is all about China moving out into the wider world; they are laying the groundwork by training up some human resources."
Students who study in China under its Belt and Road infrastructure and lending plan are handed generous living expenses with no tuition fees, as well as pleasant accommodation, Cai said.
"They are training up the next generation of pro-China people, and developing friendly ties with these countries," he said. "This is a very good foundation, and the government has spared no expense."
According to Shi Dajun, Beijing had hoped to spread its propaganda via the Confucius Institutes embedded on overseas campuses, and via the Belt and Road initiative.
"They had managed to brainwash some foreigners with their party-loving and patriotic education via the Confucius Institutes," Shi said. "The brains of the Chinese people have pretty much already been washed away."
"Now they are keen to brainwash young people from overseas, and imbue them with an experience of China, its culture, and the great achievements of the Communist Party," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translate and edited by Luisetta Mudie.