Student anger over lockdowns still fuels sporadic protests

New protests broke out on several university campuses in China this week, despite attempts by university administrations to clamp down on student unrest after the anti-‘Zero-COVID’ protests that took place on more than 100 university campuses and in many major cities in China at the end of November.

The protests at first appeared to have died down, with no reports of street protests on Tuesday 6 December in Beijing, Shanghai or other major cities, which were the site of several protests from 26 to 28 November, triggered by a deadly fire in an apartment block in the Xinjiang region.

Reports said residents of the apartment block had been unable to escape when it was sealed off as part of strict ‘Zero-COVID’ measures.

Small pockets of protest action were reported on campuses this week via social media sites, an indication that there is still simmering anger and frustration at the way in which university authorities are handling student grievances over COVID restrictions.

For example, students at Wuhan University gathered on 4 December to call for an open process and transparent information from their university administration, according to social media posts.

Campus protests this week appeared to have been triggered by university authorities suddenly putting the campus into lockdown, after a single COVID case was detected.

Lifting of harsh measures

Most of the reported student protests occurred before Wednesday 7 December, the day upon which Beijing announced the countrywide lifting of some of its harsher measures, such as forcing people into mass quarantine camps, and a decrease in testing.

Lockdowns will in future be more ‘targeted’, aimed at certain buildings or units rather than whole neighbourhoods, according to the new rules announced by China’s National Health Commission. Areas identified as ‘high risk’ should come out of lockdown after five days if no new cases are found, the commission said.

The commission had already issued 20 new rules on 11 November, cautioning university administrations against “overreaction” and prohibiting “random closures” of schools and universities. It announced at the time that lockdowns should be lifted if no positive cases were registered after five days.

Earlier this year university administrations were ordered to swiftly resolve student grievances after major protests in Shanghai during a long March-April lockdown, but students have continued to complain on social media about the lack of communication by university officials.

Nanjing protest

On 5 December, students at Nanjing University of Technology gathered to protest a five-day lockdown announced by the university authorities after a COVID-positive case was detected at the university. According to Chinese social media reports from the university, some students had asked to go back to their hometowns during the campus lockdown.

On Twitter, one student said students feared not being able to travel home for the winter break.

Video footage circulating on the internet showed students shouting slogans on campus, including calling for university leaders to stand down, and berating a teacher who tried to negotiate with them.

Separate video footage showed a police car arriving on the campus, but there was no apparent violence and students soon dispersed after university officials agreed to collect students’ written appeals, according to netizens. One student said via social media that after the incident the university postponed exams and said they would allow ‘voluntary’ returns to hometowns.

Student discontent

On 5 December, when some parts of the country had already issued orders to lift strict lockdowns in the wake of the 26-28 November protests, Hefei province announced that its prevention and control measures would not be eased, according to official media. Students said this led to discontent on several campuses in the province.

At Anhui Medical University, Hefei province, students protested after the university announced this week that the semester would end early, ending face-to-face classes.

According to one account on Chinese social media, the students asked for talks with the university’s leadership, concerned that they would not be able to complete their coursework on time. Large-scale protests broke out when the university declined to talk to them.

Also on 5 December, students from Anhui University of Technology shouted slogans and demonstrated near the campus gates after a COVID-positive case on campus led to a lockdown without warning.

According to social media accounts, the university suddenly changed its policy at midnight on 5 December, announcing that all students except those due to sit exams, should leave the campus immediately. According to one student, the university arranged for a bus to take the students who had not already left the campus to the airport and train station the following morning.

There were tense scenes at Shandong Agricultural University on 5 December after the university went into lockdown after a positive COVID case was detected. The sudden lockdown prevented those students who were not registered to sit exams from going home for the holiday, leaving them crowded around the institutional gates with their luggage.

Special flights

Many universities ended the semester early and arranged transport for students to return home after the 26 to 28 November protests.

China Southern Airlines, one of the country’s major internal airlines, was operating 16 special flights as of Tuesday to ensure students could return home, according to a statement from the airline, with more than 1,100 students from universities in Jilin province, Harbin and elsewhere taking up the flights since the beginning of December.

“China Southern has also established special task forces to contact major universities and colleges to understand the needs of students and teachers and negotiate with major airports to open special counters and channels to ensure the students and teachers return home safely and smoothly,” the official China Daily newspaper said.

More than 110 flights, which had been suspended because of COVID outbreaks, resumed this week from Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province (which saw major anti-lockdown protests in November), to meet the sudden demand as colleges and universities begin winter holidays, according to official media.