The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese university is scene of rare coronavirus lockdown protest

A man jogs May 16 in front of Wanliu, an off-campus dorm for Peking University. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)
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Hundreds of students at China’s most prestigious university tore down a metal wall and yelled at school administrators attempting to seal them in their dormitory — in a rare instance of public anger spilling into a street demonstration against official coronavirus controls.

The protest at Peking University in Beijing late Sunday is the latest example of student dissent in response to the controls that include confining students to their dorms for weeks, requiring appointments to use shared bathrooms and barring them from showering.

A student who attended the demonstration, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said students at Wanliu, an off-campus dorm in Beijing’s Haidian district, were increasingly frustrated by restrictions banning them from leaving to go to the main campus or even to the hospital. Cafeteria options had become limited, including for minority students with dietary restrictions, and food deliveries were blocked, the student said.

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On Sunday evening, students discovered workers erecting a wall of metal sheeting separating the dorms from faculty housing, which would allow faculty members to come and go while restricting students to the compound. The news spread via a WeChat group. Soon, 200 to 300 students had massed outside the dorm, and some of them began to tear down the wall as the crowd cheered.

“I never expected the support to be that strong and for there to be so many people expressing their demands,” the student said.

Footage posted online showed students shouting at the vice president of the university as he appeals to them to go back to their dorms and claims he is just trying to safeguard the school. “Is this protecting? What about our rights,” a student can be heard yelling in a video. After about two hours, the protest dispersed while student representatives continued to meet with university staff until the early morning.

China is one of few countries still pursuing a zero-covid policy through hard lockdowns, mass testing and restrictions on residents’ movement. As the controls continue to paralyze daily life, residents have begun to lose patience with the once-praised government methods.

The demonstration, while short and relatively small, carries larger significance for having taken place at Peking University (PKU), also known as Beida, which played key roles in previous political movements, such as the 1989 student protests that were crushed by the military. In 2018, dozens of PKU students were detained for supporting factory workers in southern China attempting to form a union.

News about Sunday’s protest was quickly censored on Chinese social media but not before Internet users were able to see videos and posts from students involved. On the microblogging site Weibo, many praised the group for its bravery, with some referring to the fence’s dismantling as the Berlin Wall being torn down. Some posted excerpts from the Youth, a literary magazine started in 1915 that called on China’s young people to launch an intellectual and cultural movement to revitalize the country.

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“Beida students really are something,” one user wrote on Weibo. “I want to be a Beida student in my next life,” another posted. “It has to be Beida,” a commentator wrote, referring to the school’s history as a center of student activism.

The protest in Beijing is one of the first examples of students demonstrating in person over chaotic pandemic controls on campuses. Students at Nankai University, where they had been confined for almost two months, in early May hoisted from university buildings red banners criticizing lockdown measures.

Last month at Tongji University in Shanghai, a student representative on a Zoom call with school administrators to discuss food safety and students’ access to showers and toilets grew frustrated when he was not allowed to speak. He wrote on a presentation slide that he shared silently with the group: “Stop reading from your notes. Anyone can do that. Can you please unmute us.”

Last month, students at East China Normal University in Shanghai protested against restrictions on showering. One student, who said she had not showered in 12 days, used black tape to write on the bathroom door and on shared washing machines: “I want to shower!”

At PKU, the plan to build the wall at Wanliu was canceled, and students are now able to commute to the main campus, according to the student who attended the protest. A post from the university said the school set up dance video games in several dorms, in an apparent effort to placate students.

“What we did was not anything great or powerful. We just wanted to make normal requests, to be able to commute to have slightly better food, but I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to make such a normal request,” the student said.

“Still, I also didn’t expect even this small act of resistance could make so many people feel a little bit of hope and strength. That goes to show how difficult it is to resist in this place.”