Harsh lockdown curbs prompt student protests, expulsion

A postgraduate student at Ludong University in China’s Shandong province who protested against the university’s harsh COVID-19 lockdown and mass testing was this week expelled by the university following a warning by police.

The student, Sun Jian, held up a sign on 27 March on the university campus which said ‘Unblock Ludong’ and another saying ‘Resolutely oppose high nucleic acid testing for all staff’ and walked with the signs through different parts of the university campus “for about 20 minutes”, according to an official report by the local Public Security Bureau which said Sun’s actions “seriously disrupted the order on campus”.

He had also complained in a letter to the university administration that he felt he was in a ‘detention centre’ rather than a university.

The security bureau said it issued a warning to Sun after he posted videos of himself holding up the placards. It said Sun continued to oppose the university and “incited students to boycott” the university’s measures in WeChat and other social media posts.

According to a university statement dated 31 March, seen by University World News, Sun, a student in the Chinese history department, had published many comments on his social media accounts and elsewhere since December last year criticising the university’s epidemic and prevention control measures, and had continued to do so despite the university attempting to ‘educate’ him.

The university maintained that Sun’s behaviour “seriously violated national laws” and it was therefore expelling him.

Sun said in an interview with Radio Free Asia this week that “the students at Ludong have become highly dependent on daily express deliveries for their day-to-day existence. Online shopping is now an indispensable part of their lives, but the school banned it across the board.”

According to Sun, foreign students and family members of teachers were allowed to come and go freely, but Chinese students were banned from leaving campus.

“Excessive disease control measures have sowed panic among students. I think the PCR testing of all staff was unnecessary and also caused huge disruption to students’ studies, and their daily lives,” he said, adding that he had expected to be punished by the university and planned to file an official complaint against the university administration.

“I feel that my behaviour fell purely within the scope of freedom of speech,” he said. “I did abide by the disease control regulations that I didn’t agree with.”

Several major cities in lockdown

The move to expel a student who spoke out came as several major cities in China, including Shanghai, have gone into lockdown since last month, often with severe restrictions in order to contain a raging Omicron variant outbreak, with students often banned from leaving their dormitories. Students have switched to online learning.

Under China’s strict zero-COVID policies authorities impose swift local lockdowns to stop the spread of the disease. Students have complained in the past that this has been done in some cases with little advance warning, so students are unable to stock up on food and other supplies before being confined to particular buildings or their own dormitory rooms.

Students in Shanghai said they have been tolerant and supportive of the need for lockdowns to contain the spread of disease. However, sporadic protests have been reported on China’s Weibo social media platform before being quickly censored by the authorities.

“We used to see our posts on the conditions on campus deleted in a day or so, but now they can be deleted in less than an hour,” a student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University told University World News.

“They [censors] delete posts complaining about a shortage of provisions or poor sanitary and other conditions that the students must endure on campus. We tell the university counsellors that if they don’t act, we have no choice [but to post to social media],” said a student at another Shanghai campus.

“The biggest problem is when they [the university] announce that the restrictions will only last a certain period but then go beyond that time and we are still in lockdown,” an art student in Shanghai said.

“The university counsellors say we should remain calm and not complain, but they do not do anything to help us. They are just there to enforce the restrictions.”

Official media is full of moving stories about teachers devoting their time and energy to the students to ease the burden on students, she said.

She said students had become “really depressed” when Shanghai city authorities said this week they planned to extend the city’s two-stage lockdown that began in late March. Students and academics report widespread discontent over the restrictions, both on campuses and more widely in the city where reports of food shortages and panic buying are rampant. Videos have been circulating of dire conditions in quarantine facilities.

Students protest after restrictions eased

A student in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, said students protested to the university after the authorities started to lift the lockdown in residential areas in the city earlier in March after successful measures to contain the outbreak. However, the Sichuan University campus remained in strict lockdown with students having to get permission from a university counsellor to leave the campus. Even then, she said, “students could not get permission”.

Last month, photographs were circulating on social media of a red banner on a flyover of a street in Chengdu’s shopping district which said: “Sichuan University belongs to all teachers and students, not just bureaucrats.”

The banner was reportedly removed but the pictures sparked heated discussions on social media, particularly among students, including a post that said “students can’t leave the campus but dogs can” – a reference to dogwalkers and their pets seen around the campus, apparently able to move around unrestricted.

The ‘Open up Sichuan University’ topic was trending on Weibo for over a week, with students from other universities posting comments in support of the university’s students.

Sichuan Vice-Governor Luo Qiang on 24 March ordered universities to lift the inflexible restrictions as the COVID-19 risk in the province was low, allowing students on the Sichuan University campus to get permission to leave, provided they were tested and clear of the virus.

An academic in Kunshan, close to Shanghai, which went into a separate lockdown last week said universities in provinces like Shandong, Sichuan and elsewhere were nervous about easing restrictions for fear of being held responsible for outbreaks and punished.

Officials in Jilin City, including its mayor, were sacked last month over soaring COVID-19 cases with major clusters found on university campuses in the city.