Fears rise for safety of student protesters amid arrests

The United Nations, human rights groups and alumni organisations of prominent Chinese universities have called on the Chinese authorities to refrain from cracking down on the students and other protesters who were involved in last weekend’s peaceful demonstrations against the government’s prolonged harsh anti-virus measures.

Protests have been held on more than 100 university campuses, according to independent analysis of reports on social media. Local authorities have said via social media that records of campus incidents were being “investigated”, which some students fear could lead to more punishment.

As reports of arrests have emerged, UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence on 28 November said: “No one should be arbitrarily detained for peacefully expressing their opinions.”

Laurence said allowing broad debate across society, especially among young people, “can help shape public policies, ensure they are better understood and are ultimately more effective”.

In defence of human rights

Amnesty International in a statement this week also urged Beijing to allow people to express themselves. “It is virtually impossible for people in China to protest peacefully without facing harassment and prosecution. Authorities have shown zero tolerance to opposition, especially in the last 10 years under President Xi [Jinping], but this has not stopped the protests.

“Instead of penalising the people, the government should listen to their calls. Authorities must let people express their thoughts freely and protest peacefully without fear of retaliation,” said Hana Young, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director.

“People across China are taking extraordinary risks to demand their human rights,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese authorities should not suppress the protests but instead allow everyone to peacefully express their views.”

An unknown number of students have been arrested after campus protests on the weekend of 26-27 November that spread swiftly to over 100 universities and colleges around the country, according to Chinese social media reports and University World News contacts. Some students were released after signing confession statements, while others are being detained and have had mobile phones confiscated.

Universities, keen to pre-empt any fresh protests, are not imposing severe penalties. At several universities that saw protests at the weekend, university officials have been keen to appear lenient, describing the protests as small scale and “foreign influenced”. Students were also this week being encouraged to leave for home early, before the normal semester ends, with some universities offering free train fares to students.

Tsinghua University, which saw large protests on Sunday with dozens of students involved, and which sparked much excitement on social media when videos began to emerge, announced it would offer students free transport to major railway stations and airports in Beijing.

Students at universities in Shanghai have also been told to go home early and continue classes online. Exams, including the National Civil Service Administration exam on 10 December, for which 2.5 million students are registered, have been postponed.

Appeal by Tsinghua alumni

In an open letter published on Chinese social media a day after the 27 November protests, a group of alumni of Tsinghua University said they were aware of the risks that students faced in expressing their views.

“Therefore, in the name of the [Tsinghua] alumni, we hope teachers will make a clear written commitment on behalf of the university that it will not make any accusations against students who participated in this rally [on 27 November].”

Alumni called on the university not to penalise the students “in subsequent teaching and research work” and said “they will protect the students who participated in the rally from any unreasonable treatment by any unit or institution outside the university, and from any so-called external forces,” according to the letter, which added: “We believe our alma mater Tsinghua University will make the right choice at this critical moment.”

At noon on 27 November, hundreds of students from the Tsinghua University campus joined the latest wave of protests.

Students held up blank sheets of A4 paper which have become a symbol of protest against censorship. They chanted “democracy, the rule of law, and freedom of expression” in unison, and sang the national anthem and left-wing anthem Internationale at the end of the protest.

A widely circulated video from the Tsinghua campus on 27 November recorded a student saying: “We gathered here today not only because of the problems at the university but also problems right now for all society,” with other students responding in unison: “Yes!”

Tsinghua students in particular opposed the mass transfer of students to off-site mass quarantine centres.

Officials promised to hold meetings to discuss grievances “with an unlimited number of students” but refused to hold the meeting in the outdoor area where the students were protesting.

According to videos posted online, Guo Yong, deputy secretary of the Party Committee of Tsinghua University, promised at the scene that students who participated in the protests would not be held accountable, but refused to provide the written guarantee requested by students, saying, “It’s not that I can’t, but I don’t want to.”

In another video a Tsinghua female student said: “If we dare not speak out because we are afraid of being arrested, I think people will be disappointed in us. As a student of Tsinghua University, I will regret it for the rest of my life!”

Unprecedented protests

Street and campus protests in major Chinese cities by citizens fed up with the government’s harsh ‘Zero-COVID policies’ which involve constant testing, quarantine and lockdowns, were triggered by the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire in an apartment block in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang region, last week, after the building had been sealed as part of COVID measures.

By Sunday evening mass demonstrations had spread to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan and other cities where thousands of residents called not only for an end to COVID restrictions, but risked persecution by criticising Xi Jinping and calling for political freedoms.

Initially, 50 universities reported protests on Saturday, some of them with a single student holding a white sheet of paper. This had expanded to over 79 campuses in 15 provinces by Sunday.

Groups tracking reports of university protests had by 26 November logged incidents at 14 different universities and colleges in Beijing, nine in Guangdong province in Southern China, 15 in Shanghai, Hubei, Shandong, Zhejiang, Shaanxi, Jiangsu and Sichuan; and at another five campuses, elsewhere in China, according to sources monitored by University World News.

They later added Hong Kong where solidarity protests were held at the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

By the end of the weekend the number of campuses had risen to over 103, according to lists compiled by Chinese netizens from social media reports from campuses. Many of them involved students holding up blank sheets of paper.

At South China University of Technology in Shenzhen students complained online about not being able to use printers because paper had been removed from printers after dozens of protest leaflets had been circulating in the university and were ripped up by university authorities.

Two students were questioned and then released. The university has insisted it wishes to be lenient, according to students, but the students pointed to the futility of trying to stop them by depriving them of paper.

Nanjing – the first protests

Students from the Communication University of China, Nanjing were among the first to gather on the night of 26 November to mourn those who died in the Urumqi fire.

Videos showed students holding up sheets of paper and mobile phone flashlights. In one video, a university official could be heard warning the students: “You will pay for what you did today.”

“You too, and so will the country,” a student shouted in reply. They later gathered to sing the Internationale.

According to videos posted on social media, the police dispatched special officers and drove anti-riot vehicles into the Nanjing campus, dispersing and arresting protesting students. Some women students who participated in the protests were notified that they would receive demerits. But in one conflicting account, the university’s head was later seen in a video promising “not to pursue the matter” against students.

Later, the university issued a notification telling students to delete anything on the protests from their phones.

A large number of videos posted on Saturday by students on mainstream social media platforms such as WeChat, Weibo and Douyin were quickly deleted by the platforms’ censors and any mention of the Nanjing institution was censored on Weibo. Nonetheless, the Nanjing videos went viral and struck a chord among people weary of what are perceived as often-arbitrary restrictions.

Despite the Nanjing crackdown, at least three students were spotted in the underground passage outside the Nanjing campus the following day holding up sheets of paper. Videos showed them being protected by other students who surrounded them when police and university officials tried to detain them.

According to the student video which is unverified by University World News, the three students are “safe for now”. But other students have voiced fears of being arrested later.


The highest number of students detained at the weekend is believed to be from Shanghai, according to sources monitored by University World News. The city’s 25 million residents were subjected to a two-month lockdown in the spring when all the city’s 30 plus universities were shut down in March and April. Student protests broke out on several campuses at the time and police were called in.

On Saturday night, hundreds of Shanghai residents gathered for a candlelight vigil on Urumqi Road, which is named after the city, to mourn the victims of the Xinjiang fire, shouting slogans such as “Don’t want COVID test, want freedom!” and “Don’t want dictatorship, want democracy!”

An unknown number were arrested, including students protesting on the streets as well as on campuses. Students said some of their classmates were released the following morning after signing confession letters. They will not be given criminal records, according to some reports that could not be verified.

Sitong Bridge slogans

The rapid spread of protests over two days is seen by residents as remarkable, not just because of the number of cities and campuses involved, but because of the surveillance and controls around the country.

However, a female student in Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that the latest protests did not come out of the blue.

In October and early November dozens of students had put up ‘Sitong Bridge’ protest posters emulating the actions of a man who, on 13 October, unfurled two banners on Beijing’s Sitong flyover that were openly critical of Xi Jinping and his Zero-COVID policies. The slogans captured the imagination of lockdown-weary students and residents, she said.

Some of the Sitong Bridge banners contained the following messages: ‘Say no to COVID tests, yes to food’; ‘No to lockdown, yes to freedom’; ‘No to lies, yes to dignity’. The slogans have appeared on university noticeboards, walls and fences on many campuses since then – an indication of latent defiance.

Further afield, Chinese student groups at universities around the world have been posting the Sitong Bridge slogans at universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Europe.

At Peking University on Sunday, the Sitong Bridge slogans appeared on a wall on campus, attracting a crowd of students. One student said security guards later painted over the slogan after first covering the big red characters with a black coat. They also washed away similar slogans written on the steps outside the main university canteen.