BEIJING – Administrators at an elite Beijing university have backed down from plans to further tighten pandemic restrictions on students as part of China’s “zero-COVID” strategy after a weekend protest at the school, according to students Tuesday.
Graduate students at Peking University staged the rare, but peaceful protest Sunday over the school’s decision to erect a sheet-metal wall to keep them further sequestered on campus, while allowing faculty to come and go freely. Discontent had already been simmering over regulations prohibiting them from ordering in food or having visitors, and daily COVID-19 testing.
A citywide lockdown of Shanghai and expanded restrictions in Beijing in recent weeks have raised questions about the economic and human costs of China’s strict virus controls, which the ruling Communist Party has trumpeted as a success compared to other major nations with much higher death tolls. While most people have grumbled privately or online, some Shanghai residents have clashed with police, volunteers and others trying to enforce lockdowns and take infected people to quarantine centers.
Many of the Peking University students protesting Sunday outside a dormitory took cellphone videos as Chen Baojian, the deputy secretary of the university’s Communist Party committee, admonished them through a megaphone to end the protest and talk with him one-on-one.
“Please put down your mobile phones, protect Peking University,” he said, to which one student yelled: “Is that protection? How about our rights and interests?”
The crowd of about 200 clapped and cheered as a half dozen protesters broke through the sheet-metal barrier behind Chen.
The phone videos were quickly shared over social media, but just as quickly removed by government censors. Some supportive comments remained, though many were also taken down, while some videos remain on Twitter, which is blocked in China.
“Peking University students are great!” wrote one person on the popular social media platform Weibo. “Fight for rights. A single spark can start a prairie fire.”
The Communist Party moves quickly to quash most activism and any sign of unrest, which it sees as a potential challenge to its hold on power. Peking University is among a handful of elite institutions that have played prominent roles in political movements including the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the student-led 1989 pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that were crushed by the army.
Following the protest, university leaders met with student representatives and agreed to remove the sheet-metal barrier, the South China Morning Post reported Tuesday.
One graduate student who took part in the protest, who did not want her name published due to possible repercussions, said the wall had been taken down a short time later, and that other concessions were made to the students, including organizing free supermarket deliveries.
“We achieved our goals Sunday night,” said the student, who said she had been confined to the university's Wanliu residential compound for 7 days before the protest.
The compound is about 5 kilometers (3 miles) southwest of the main Peking University campus, housing young professors and graduate students. It also has a gym, a supermarket and other facilities.
Authorities have tightened restrictions on access to campuses and monitoring of classroom instruction and student life, making such protests extremely rare. In 2018, police detained students at schools including Peking University who had sought to form an alliance with protesting factory workers, displaying their refusal to tolerate even mild attempts at political activism.
As most other countries in the world have begun to ease restrictions and gradually open back up, China has stuck tenaciously to its zero-COVID policy.
The strict lockdowns with most public areas closed down have played havoc with employment, supply chains and the economy in general, and are becoming increasingly hard on people as the highly transmissible omicron variant proves more difficult to stop.
In Beijing, authorities on Tuesday restricted more residents to their homes in a now 3-week-long effort to control a small but persistent COVID-19 outbreak in the Chinese capital.
Seven adjoining areas in the city's Fengtai district were designated lockdown zones for at least one week, with people ordered to stay at home in an area covering about 4 kilometers by 5 kilometers (2.5 miles by 3 miles). The area is near a wholesale food market that was closed indefinitely on Saturday following the discovery of a cluster there.
The added restrictions come as Shanghai, China’s largest city, slowly starts to ease a citywide lockdown that has trapped most of its population for more than six weeks.
China recorded 1,100 new cases on Monday, the National Health Commission said Tuesday. Of those, about 800 were in Shanghai and 52 were in Beijing. The daily number of new cases in Shanghai has declined steadily for more than two weeks, but authorities have been moving slowly to relax restrictions, frustrating residents.
In Beijing, the number of cases has held steady but new clusters have popped up in different parts of the city. City spokesperson Xu Hejian said that Beijing's top priority is to screen people related to the cluster at the wholesale food market and isolate those who test positive. A second wholesale food market in Fengtai district was shut down Tuesday.
Most of Beijing is not locked down, but the streets are much quieter than usual with many shops closed and people working from home.
Rising reported from Bangkok. Associated Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai and news assistant Caroline Chen in Guangzhou, China, contributed to this report.