Harsh zero-COVID measures spark student protests in Beijing

As parts of Beijing followed Shanghai and dozens of other cities into lockdown under China’s strict zero-COVID policy, student anger over lack of advance warning by university authorities and harsh measures to prevent students from entering or leaving campuses have led to protests at universities in the capital.

A large number among the 50 plus universities in Beijing imposed restrictions on student movement in and out of campuses this month, including the elite Tsinghua University and Peking University.

Transport and other restrictions have been imposed on China’s capital and mass testing is under way as authorities try to stamp out cases. Thirty-nine new local infections were reported in Beijing on Monday, a total of 1,000 cases since the latest outbreak began over two weeks ago.

The apparent erection of a metal barrier at Peking University residential compound sparked the sit-down protest by a large group of students – believed to number in the hundreds – at the weekend.

The Peking University wall

The students were irritated by the restrictions, which they said were badly communicated, and in particular the wall made up of metal panels intended to separate student dormitories from other parts of the campus used by professors. The angry protest was captured on videos that went viral on China’s internet before being censored and removed.

Students said that the wall would have ‘imprisoned’ students while allowing faculty and staff to move freely in the area away from the main Peking University campus.

In one video posted to social media, Chen Baojian, deputy secretary of Peking University’s Communist Party committee, is seen pleading with students to go back to their dormitories while some students attempted to tear down the half-built wall. Students said the group dispersed after the university authorities said they would remove the wall.

Protests at Peking University are regarded as particularly sensitive by the Chinese leadership because of the university’s historic role in sparking major unrest including the 1989 protests that led to the Tiananmen crackdown.

Protests elsewhere in Beijing

Student protests over unfair lockdown measures have been noted at a number of campuses.

In Beijing, Chaoyang district was the first to go into lockdown in the first week of May after COVID cases were detected in the area.

Just days later, police were called to the campus of Beijing International Studies University (BISU) in the district after a protest broke out on 8 May.

Both students and teachers took part in the protest against restrictions imposed on entering and leaving the campus. Campus residential areas were fenced off without warning or consultation, students said.

Students noted that in some areas of the densely populated Chaoyang district, officials had welded residents into apartment blocks using steel barriers, and they feared similar heavy-handed measures on their campus.

The restrictions appeared to have been imposed by the university administration rather than the health authorities after the BISU party committee said it viewed disease control and prevention as “the political priority for the present” and would “resolutely implement” the policy, without need for local centres for disease control and prevention to get involved.

Student protests in other cities

Peking University students who were not at the compound affected by the sit-down protest this week said all students at Peking University and other universities in Beijing feared harsh and prolonged measures, as they had heard from students at universities in Shanghai that have been in lockdown for more than six weeks – with so far no indication of when the campus restrictions will end, despite official pronouncements that the city is ‘getting back to normal’.

For example, students at Fudan University in Shanghai have been confined to dormitories for weeks, with additional strict controls on use of common areas including bathrooms. Earlier this month riot police had to be brought in when students at Fudan launched a protest against the tightening of restrictions.

Fudan students said they were unable to leave campus to get food and essential supplies. Earlier this month they complained they were even prevented from taking showers.

Zhi Ye, a former journalist and Fudan graduate, said in a since-deleted blogpost that students at Shanghai’s Tongji University reported that they had to sign up for timed bathroom breaks, and some reportedly suffered food poisoning from food supplied by the university canteen.

Students from various cities and towns in Jilin, which has been in strict lockdown since March, have also vented frustration over what they view as draconian and prolonged COVID measures.

Students reported that they were forced to register for a lottery-type selection system in order to have showers, after students were barred from the corridors and other common areas in campus dormitory buildings.

Students at Jilin University reportedly have to have temperature checks and scan into a contact tracing app to track their movements before they are allowed into showers in the public areas of their dormitory buildings.

Sun Jian, a student at Ludong University in Shandong, was expelled in April after a campus lockdown protest in late March.

In early May, students at Nankai University in Tianjin draped protest banners from university buildings to protest against prolonged quarantine. They have been prohibited from leaving campus since early March.

Many social media posts protesting lockdown measures are quickly censored and removed.