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China closes some university campuses in response to COVID policy protests

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Students are among the protesters of China’s “zero-COVID” policy and the situation is dynamic: will the protests subside, will they result in change, or is a violent crackdown imminent?
  • At least 10 universities have sent students home from campus, citing a need to protect them from COVID outbreaks
  • There is speculation that preventing further protests is the real reason behind the decision to disperse students and send them back to their hometowns

It seems like a long time ago when we were all discussing and worrying about the mental health of students isolating in their rooms and dorms in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and other destinations because of COVID lockdown measures. A back-to-normal atmosphere now pervades university campuses in most destinations – but not in China. Students in China continue to face significant freedom-of-movement restrictions due to China’s continued “zero-COVID” policy. At its most extreme, this approach has forced entire cities into lockdown for 100 days or more.

Now, university students are among the crowds protesting the Chinese government’s approach to managing COVID, frustrated and angered about being forced to confine themselves for weeks or months in small spaces when officials impose a lockdown to stem an outbreak. Many have suffered from mental health issues due to prolonged isolation. Many more are incensed by events such as a deadly fire in the city of Urumqi in November; people linked the death toll from this disaster to firefighters allegedly being blocked by pandemic control barriers or cars left behind by people forced into quarantine.

Those who are protesting across the country are risking arrest or worse, but they feel they can no longer tolerate the extreme curbs on their freedoms.

Where things stand

Currently, the situation is dynamic. On the one hand, the government has eased restrictions in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong in response to the protests. On the other, Chinese top security officials stress the need for a “crackdown” on what they call “hostile forces.” The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the main law enforcement body in China, says the government must “resolutely crack down on illegal criminal acts that disrupt social order in accordance with the law and earnestly safeguard overall social stability.”

In effect, protesters can see that their risk is paying off given some relaxation of restrictions, but they also know that a violent crackdown is possible in the coming days and weeks if the protests continue. There is the memory of Tiananmen Square, of course, and last week, a BBC journalist was detained and beaten. Multiple photos and videos are circulating showing protesters being shoved, dragged, and pushed into cars on their way to detention.

However, media reports say that so far, excessive police force appears to be happening as secretly as possible to avoid adding more fuel to the protests and anger of Chinese citizens. More visible is a major increase in police surveillance, including officers stopping pedestrians to check their phones for any evidence of support for the protests.

Student protesters at universities – including Tsingua and Peking, ranked #16 and #17, respectively, on the Times Higher Education 2023 World University Rankings – have been active. Not coincidentally, students enrolled in at least 10 universities have been sent home – though the official reason is that this is necessary to protect them from COVID outbreaks. The Associated Press reports:

“Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students protested over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong, sent students home. The schools said [students] were being protected from COVID-19, but dispersing them to far-flung hometowns also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism including the Tiananmen protests.”

CNN reports that at Peking University, student protesters painted a red message on the steps of a campus building reading:

“Say no to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to COVID test, yes to food. Open your eyes and look at the world, dynamic zero-COVID is a lie.”

Photos of the message – and of a security guard holding a jacket over the words, aware the scene was being photographed – can be seen here.

AP reports that at the University of Hong Kong, student protesters chanted, “We’re not foreign forces but your classmates,” referring to the government’s assertion that the protest movement is being organised by those outside China.

How will it end?

It is unclear yet how the government will resolve the challenge of the protests and the increasingly frustrated Chinese population. “Zero-COVID” policies are clearly no longer working; COVID cases are rising in many parts of the country. But relaxing policies further also comes with a great risk given that (1) more COVID cases, including variants of the virus, could spread throughout China’s massive population, (2) the protests could become more widespread and generalised (there have already been calls for President Xi Jinpeng to resign).

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told NPR News:

“This is the typical policy dilemma that the Chinese leaders face. When you relax and open up, it will lead to chaos, and when you tighten policy, it will be too rigid to allow any flexibility.”

As reported by University World News, William Hurst, the Chong Hua professor of Chinese development at the University of Cambridge, expressed his sense of how the protests might end through a series of tweets. He believes that it is most likely that the protests will “fizzle out” rather than result in any “concessions or systemic change,” but that the outcome is uncertain:

“If things fizzle – or even if the strands [and] repertoires become disentangled – all will return to the somewhat uneasy quotidian of a few weeks ago. If not, this could prove a critical juncture. But not one that will be easy to read in real time or with a happy ending.”

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