Campus COVID measures climbdown after student protests

University authorities in Zhengzhou, capital of China’s central Henan province, have backed down over what students said were overly harsh measures when campuses locked down this month.

China’s education ministry and local education authorities have cautioned universities against imposing overly harsh, prolonged or arbitrary anti-COVID measures when campuses are not designated as ‘high risk’.

The move comes as COVID restrictions in Zhengzhou, exacerbated by a labour dispute, led to violent protests in the city this week. Thousands of police were deployed to the giant Foxconn production plant in the city – the largest in the world producing Apple smartphones for the global market.

Zhengzhou is often referred to as ‘iPhone City’ by locals. A full lockdown was imposed on the city on 23 November in the wake of the factory protests.

China’s new wave of infections, which has affected major cities, including Beijing and Guangzhou and Shijiazhuang, saw new COVID cases rise by 31,444 in one day on 24 November. It exceeds the previous peak in April which resulted in the lockdown in Shanghai that lasted two months.

It is now the highest daily figure since the initial Wuhan outbreak in late 2019, though testing was not as widespread then as now.

While the primary focus has been on the Foxconn unrest, the city authorities have been keen to diffuse protests on university campuses in Zhengzhou.

Peaceful protests erupted at Zhengzhou University on 16 November and at Huanghe Science and Technology University in Zhengzhou earlier in the month as university campuses in Zhengzhou went into lockdown at the end of October. At that time reported cases in the whole of Henan province were between 20 and 30 a day. It jumped to 3,000 cases in the city on 16 November.

Classes were moved online and the lockdowns restricted movement between campuses and the rest of the city, a measure known as ‘closed loop management’. Students at Zhengzhou University had protested at the time saying they did not have warm clothes and blankets as cold weather was setting in, according to online posts.

Harsh campus measures despite city lockdown lifted

This month, in what is thought to be their third angry protest since the October lockdown, students at the university protested against ‘chaotic’ university management and shortages of food and supplies during the campus lockdown that started on 9 October.

They also demanded delivery services to the campus to be fully reinstated, and common areas, including libraries and bathrooms, to be opened up. They also wanted an end to ‘compressed courses’ – a reference to late starts and early ending of semesters.

But more far-reaching, they demanded openness and transparency from the university.

While some restrictions were lifted by early November in the city, with a population of around 12 million, students complained university authorities had ‘illegally’ continued harsh measures.

The latest rules issued by China’s National Health Commission published on 11 November prohibit “random closures” of schools and universities or arbitrary suspension of classes, cautioning university administrators against “overreaction”.

Earlier this year university and local government officials were ordered by Beijing to calm campus unrest and ease draconian rules for university students in cities affected by strict COVID lockdowns, as soon as conditions allow.

Some Zhengzhou University students, who were reportedly punished for the earlier protests with demerits this month, maintained the university authorities were not following the more lenient policies of ‘low risk’ areas at times when the campus registered no positive COVID cases for five consecutive days, as stipulated by China’s National Health Commission.

They complained they had been under lockdown restrictions for over 40 days without respite despite changes in the risk status.

At another university in Zhengzhou, Zhengzhou University of Aeronautics, the plight of some 30,000 teachers and students was revealed when alumni posted an open letter pointing to “severe and complex controls” on campus causing a serious shortage of supplies for students.

Students flee campus

At Huanghe Science and Technology University in Zhengzhou, one of the largest private universities in the country, fear of an impending lockdown led to thousands of students reportedly fleeing the campus on 8 November after confirmed COVID cases at the university.

Some students complained they were held at a Zhengzhou train station preventing them from leaving the city. This followed an exodus of some 100,000 workers from the Foxconn factory in the city since mid-October, which may have additionally panicked some students, according to reports.

Some students said they wanted to leave after being denied permission to seek medical treatment, according to official media reports.

This caused a headache for the authorities. Some 700,000 students study at colleges and universities in Zhengzhou and a large number reportedly tried to leave.

Official media said many cities in Henan province have announced “emergency investigations” of returnees from Huanghe Science and Technology University, Zhengzhou Institute of Finance and Economics, Zhengzhou University, Zhengzhou University of Light Industry and other institutions, and drawn up “detailed reports”.

The provincial education department was forced to intervene to dampen tensions between students and university staff at the Huanghe campus for those that remained behind, protesting against the suddenness of the lockdown, and inadequate provisions.

The provincial authority sent officials to take up the students’ grievances after angry confrontations between staff and students leaked online.

In an unusual dressing down, the Henan provincial authorities criticised the university for failing to grasp the COVID situation “accurately”. The official China Daily’s headline on 10 November ran “University corrects COVID ‘mistake’”.

Dong Yumin, a provincial education department official, was quoted by China Daily as saying that university staff members “will send meals to every student”.

Online commentators said the provincial authorities were keen to make an example of the way grievances were handled at the university.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee this month issued some 20 new measures on prevention and control to minimise the impact of pandemic controls on the economy and on society, while protecting health and safety, which has been referred to by students in their angry exchanges with university officials.

Educational departments have set up complaint platforms and hotlines to swiftly handle campus complaints and resolve problems to diffuse the build-up of campus tensions.

The Ministry of Education, provincial and prefecture-level education departments will set up special work teams “to investigate one by one” the random closure of campuses, prolonged closures, no offline teaching for a long time, lack of living security, and controls [that affect] families of teachers, students and employees,” the National Health Commission said.

But a student in the city contacted by University World News suggested that universities could easily lift restrictions when inspection teams visit and reimpose them later.

Yojana Sharma, University World News Asia editor, contributed to this article.