Students face new restrictions as key party congress looms

At least a dozen universities in Beijing are cutting short an upcoming national holiday and discouraging student travel in advance of the key 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in mid-October, adding to disruptions caused by COVID-19 prevention measures in recent weeks.

These included staggered or late starts to the academic year in September due to COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses in Beijing.

Beijing has tightened security in advance of the party congress, held every five years, which kicks off in the capital on 16 October. The Communist Party conclave is expected to extend Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership to a third term in office, and begin the process to revise the party constitution to allow him to become ‘leader for life’, thereby cementing his authority.

Academics said the extra travel restrictions also related to COVID control measures in and around Beijing in advance of the party congress, as Xi seeks to tout the success of China’s ‘Zero-COVID’ measures in controlling the pandemic.

Universities in the capital, including Peking University and Tsinghua University, announced that the seven-day October public holiday catering for the country’s National Day celebrations, which normally begin on 1 October and last a week, would be cut short by several days and new COVID-like restrictions imposed on students and staff who want to leave the city for that period.

This is part of measures to curb ‘imports’ of COVID on their return.

Special approval system

Students said they would have to go through a special approval system, separate from the COVID-19 approval system already in place, if they want to leave the capital during October.

Chinese authorities have asked all cities, even those without an outbreak, to conduct regular mass testing until the end of October, as part of Xi’s Zero-COVID policy.

Universities in Beijing had already tightened COVID-19 prevention measures after campus-related clusters emerged in early September, with strict ‘no entry and no exit’ measures in place on some campuses and mass testing in many areas in the city after a COVID cluster emerged on the campus of the Communication University of China.

Li Yi, spokesperson for the Beijing Municipal Education Commission, said during a press briefing on 6 September that the increasing flow of people during holidays such as the National Day holiday posed an increased risk to the capital by bringing in imported cases.

Universities and schools, where clusters of infection often emerge, are key to epidemic prevention, and outbreaks must be contained “in the shortest time possible”, the education authorities said.

Silencing of political dissent

The silencing of political dissent in advance of a major party conclave is common in China, but censorship has recently included academics and others who have criticised the harshness of the Zero-COVID policy, which has led to unrest in several cities, as well as campus protests at universities in Shanghai in April and Beijing in May.

Online critics and academics who have questioned the policy for being too harsh are being silenced, particularly after a Politburo Standing Committee meeting in May chaired by Xi, which pledged to “fight against any speech that distorts, questions or rejects our country’s COVID-control policy”.

Censorship has been stepped up in advance of the party congress, according to political commentators.

According to a recent report in late September, the social media Weibo account of Lao Dongyan, a criminal law professor at Tsinghua University, who has criticised excessive Zero-COVID implementation by local and regional governments, “had been wiped clean”, and all her posts taken down.

Lao has been particularly critical of the effect of Zero-COVID policies on China’s rule of law, with individual rights often becoming subservient to the need to control outbreaks. She has also criticised the policies as a means to exert mass surveillance on the population.

He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, known for criticising poor governance in managing the coronavirus outbreak and China’s weak rule of law, has also had his social media accounts censored. Other legal scholars have also been silenced.

A ‘signature policy’

China scholar Andreas Fulda, associate professor at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, said this was partly because Zero-COVID has been a “signature policy” of Xi.

According to Fulda, Xi has couched the Zero-COVID policy in terms of Chinese superiority over the West, which initially took a bigger hit from COVID when it opened up. “In hindsight we know that this was a fleeting success [for China]. But to acknowledge the weakness of his policy approach [now], he [Xi] just can’t, can’t entertain that,” Fulda told University World News.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the Zero-COVID policy was “a political campaign [for Xi] to test the loyalty of his subordinates in the provinces”, to secure his bid to continue as party leader after the 20th Party Congress.

However, a reassessment by Xi might be on the horizon.

“Despite Xi Jinping’s obsession with Zero-COVID, after the 20th Party Congress, when he is reaffirmed leader, he might loosen up a bit, simply because the economic figures are looking really bad,” Lam told University World News, adding: “Although no one knows what Xi and the new leadership may do, the current [economic] situation is not sustainable.”

Other China academics note the wider effects of the Zero-COVID policy beyond public health: factory shutdowns, declining exports, a substantial hit to economic growth forecasts, and youth unemployment at a record 20%.

It has been common in the past to silence dissent and place dissidents, including academics, under house arrest during important political events and anniversaries. But the crackdown against critics, including Zero-COVID critics, could continue in the longer term.

Lam predicted that the silencing of opposition would continue beyond the party congress. “Some of the legal scholars who dare to criticise Xi, even though they do it indirectly, have effectively been told to keep silent.”

Fulda said: “The direction of travel has been in only one direction under Xi, and that is more and more control, more and more crackdowns.”

Outside Beijing

Although their impact on political events in Beijing is minimal, universities outside the capital are also putting into effect special anti-COVID precautions in advance of the National Day holidays. According to the economic daily Caixin, institutions in Jiangsu, Shandong, Hunan and other provinces have also cut short the holiday period to prevent students taking longer trips home.

Despite an education ministry circular in August saying higher education institutions should not impose additional curbs on ‘low risk’ areas with no COVID cases, restrictions have not been removed in many cities after many went into full or partial lockdown in August and early September.

“We don’t know when these restrictions will end. It is one reason after another. Now it is because of National Day. After that it will be some other excuse,” a student in Shanghai told University World News.

Caixin said students complained that opaque epidemic prevention policies on campus, unclear approval standards for entry and exit and other added restrictions had been an extra headache, particularly in areas of low risk.

The Sino-US joint venture Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in Jiangsu province, in a notice to students in September, announced special COVID-19 prevention and control measures for the National Day holiday after a COVID-positive case emerged in Kunshan city. The measures included the need to request special permission to travel outside the area.

The DKU Emergency Preparedness Task Force said in an email: “[Travelling] outside of Suzhou/Kunshan without permission may result in the suspension of campus access.” Suzhou is a city close to Kunshan.

‘Traffic light’ health code

The DKU notice said its health code would be “reset” during the holiday period and all members of the DKU community would be required to submit their travel history as well as the health code “to reactivate the code”.

The ‘traffic light’ official health code system identifies an individual’s COVID status, including the latest PCR COVID test result. The triggering of a red or yellow code can severely restrict freedom of movement, including travel on public transport, and even entry to shops and restaurants. It could also lead to people being sent to a designated COVID-19 quarantine site.

Authorities can suspend or reset health codes for individuals in high-risk areas, which means they must all complete tests and quarantine periods for the code to be reinstated.