Returning students face greater surveillance, censorship

China’s Education Ministry has announced that students will be returning to universities “as normal” this month for the start of the new semester after they were sent home in early December in the wake of widespread anti-Zero-COVID protests, which saw many students and others arrested. But experts say even if the COVID-19 situation is under control, the situation on campuses is unlikely to be normal.

China’s Zero-COVID policy was abruptly lifted in early December after the late November protests – seen as the biggest anti-government protests in decades. The lifting of the COVID restrictions unleashed a massive wave of COVID-19 infections around the country.

On 5 February official media reported that China’s COVID-19 related death tolls had halved from the previous weekly total (20-26 January) of 6,364 to 3,278 across 31 provinces. “A sharp decline in deaths and the downward trend of COVID-19 infections indicate that China has stepped out of the current wave,” the official Global Times newspaper said.

According to official data released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 infections peaked at 6.94 million on 22 December 2022, with new daily cases decreasing to 15,000 on 23 January and then rising slightly to 24,000 on 30 January.

Universities in many provinces are required to inform their local education department about their specific plans for the return of students to campuses. Some universities are delaying the return of students by a week or two, bringing in online classes from the start of the semester. Some campuses are staggering the return of students by year group, with some students not due to arrive on campus until early March.

One academic in Guangdong province said this was a clear indication that COVID rates had not died down as is being claimed by the authorities, and that health departments are still worried about high transmission rates in schools and on university campuses.

Surveillance, censorship stepped up

At the same time, Chinese social media reports indicate that campus surveillance and censorship has been stepped up in the wake of the protests to prevent a recurrence of sporadic campus protests which continued into December.

An unknown number of students and others were arrested following the protests in November that have come to be referred to as the ‘white paper’ protests in reference to the blank pieces of paper held up by protesters to signify censorship and the lack of rights to speak out. Protesters chanted slogans such as “End Zero-COVID”, “We want human rights” and “Down with the Communist Party!”

Overseas groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and China Human Rights Defenders, have been tracking arrests. Last week they called on the Chinese authorities to release all those arrested for taking part in the protests.

According to rights groups, arrests – both formal and ‘informal’ – have continued in recent weeks as students returned home for the extended break.

“As students went back to their hometowns, they were charged. The local police work with parents so it is a kind of house arrest,” Yaqiu Wang of US-based HRW told University World News in reference to the so-called informal arrests.

“The police do not need to actually take a person to a detention centre. Usually, the parents are very cooperative because they want to make sure their children will be safe … they think this is the best way,” Wang added.

But others have been formally arrested and will go through a judicial process.

Referring to the statement announcing that universities will reopen in the coming week, she said: “So what will happen to those students? Will they be allowed to go back to university? It is impossible to know.”

Wang surmised that the decision to allow students to return would vary according to the local authority in the hometown, and whether or not students had been willing to sign promises not to protest.

“One thing is for sure: once they have gone to a protest and been detained, they will always be on the list and will be harassed and surveilled, probably throughout their lives.”

She noted that in cases of dissent in the past students had been allowed back with constant supervision: “a periodic chat [with police] and harassment and surveillance.”

For example, student protesters in a number of cities in China in 2018 were kept under house arrest for many months for supporting factory workers who were demanding better labour rights.

Switch to low-key repression

Yuen Yuen Ang, a professor in the department of political science at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, said in an interview with the SOAS China Institute’s ‘China in Context’ podcast on 2 February that the methods of repression have changed since the last major widespread student protests in 1989 which at that time culminated in a brutal crackdown and many deaths.

“One of the lessons the Chinese authorities have learned is to avoid cracking down in public in a brutal and violent fashion,” Ang said. “The method they have employed instead is to avoid a violent public crackdown but then to arrest individual participants after the event, one by one.”

“The November rallies changed the course of COVID in China,” said Ang, in that they challenged the government and led directly to a lifting of the Zero-COVID policy.

“Most of the grievances [that led to the protests] were driven by deep personal frustration with the Zero-COVID policy, both because it is restrictive but more importantly because it is senseless,” said Ang. “That has triggered a sense in some that there is something wrong with authoritarian government.”

More than 100 people detained

China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has estimated that more than 100 people have been detained or “forcibly disappeared” during at least 68 protests they say were documented across 31 cities and on campuses in late November.

“Some of them have been simply released or released on ‘bail pending trial’,” CHRD said in a statement on its website on 20 January.

“Almost all of the ‘blank paper’ protests were peaceful. With some exceptions, police at the protest sites operated with a degree of restraint, making limited detentions on the scene.

“However, subsequently, with the aid of street-level surveillance camera footage from protests and information gathering in interrogations, police carried out numerous detentions, in what is known in Chinese as ‘settling accounts after the autumn’ – seeking reprisals against adversaries afterwards,” the CHRD statement said.

Under Chinese law, defendants released on bail pending trial can see the charges against them dropped if they do not commit further violations of the law, but they often remain under close police surveillance for one year, CHRD said.

Protesters and dissidents in China often face charges that are quite vague, like “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, with sentences of up to five years in jail.

Universities and academics speak out for alumni

Some universities are beginning to speak out for their alumni in China. GoldSmiths, University of London said in a statement on 31 January that one of its alumni, Li Siqi, a journalist, was being detained by the Chinese authorities after taking part in a peaceful vigil to remember the victims of the Xinjiang fire, the trigger for the November protests.

The fire at an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwest Xinjiang region, led to at least 10 deaths, reportedly because the victims were prevented from escaping due to pandemic control barriers.

Frances Corner, warden of Goldsmiths, has written a private letter to the Chinese ambassador in London and the college is working with Amnesty International to support the release of those detained, according to the statement.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the suppression of free speech and urge the Chinese authorities to immediately release all those who are being detained in relation to the vigil,” the letter said.

Faculty at the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago also called for the release of alumna Qin Ziyi, who was among those detained.

Students from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia recently set up an online petition to call for the release of alumna Li Yuanjing, who has been detained for more than a month and will “probably face lengthy imprisonment” for her role in the protests, they said.

“Many protesters have been taken away by the police on suspicion of ‘gathering to disrupt public order’,” said the petition, which had attracted over 2,200 signatures by 4 February. “Some have even been deprived of their rights to access official legal documents or see their lawyers.

“Although a few have been released on bail, the majority of them have been formally arrested, still held in detention and [are] possibly facing heavy sentences,” it said, calling the crackdown “shocking and unacceptable”.

Others such as Yunyun Zhou, associate professor of Chinese politics and society at the University of Oslo, tweeted in support of Zhai Dengrui, a teacher in Beijing who was reportedly arrested in her hometown after taking part in a white paper protest, though the date of her arrest is unclear.

Zhou pointed to reports that before her arrest Zhai had been planning to apply to the University of Oslo to study theatre studies.

According to those reports, “she was on the way to submitting her application to faculty but the protest and the arrest prevented her from submitting that application,” Zhou told University World News. “It really touched me that she could have arrived here a few months later and it would have been possible to meet her and even maybe have her at the institute if this [arrest] didn’t happen.”

Academics said privately that universities needed to speak up against unfair detentions of their students or alumni in China. A Chinese student in London who said it was “amazing” that Goldsmiths had spoken out said it was important for institutions to take the lead.

“Friends and family can easily become a target of the security people if we speak out. We would face threats, harassment. Even if we are abroad our families back home would be contacted to put pressure on us to silence us.”

Chat group members arrested

Rights groups have noted that members of online chat groups, who may not have actually taken part in the street or campus protests, have also been arrested, as well as those who disseminated protest information.

According to one report on Chinese social media in early January, a Peking University online forum for students to post anonymously, developed and managed by students, was recently taken over by the so-called Youth Research Centre under Peking University’s Communist Party Youth League Committee. One of the original team that ran the site described it as a “forced takeover”.

Before it came under party control, some 2,000 messages were posted by students per day. But students now report that “deletions have intensified” under the new management.

HRW’s Wang said internal university bulletin boards were important as people trusted each other. “They are very important for students to communicate with each other and that avenue [of communication] is being taken away,” she said, noting that this is in a broader context where social media is heavily censored.