Beijing – Administrators at an elite Beijing university have backed out from their 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, on Tuesday. Graduate students at Peking University staged a rare but peaceful protest Sunday over the school’s decision to erect a sheet metal wall to further isolate them on campus while allowing faculty to come and go freely.
Discontent was already boiling over regulations that forbid them from ordering food or receiving visitors, and the daily testing for COVID-19.
across a cityand expanded restrictions in Beijing in recent weeks have raised questions about the economic and human costs of tight virus controls in China, with the ruling Communist Party declaring it a success compared to other major countries with much higher death rates. While most people grumbled in private or online, some Shanghai residents clashed with police, volunteers and others trying to enforce quarantines and take infected people to quarantine centers.
Many of Peking University students who staged an overseas protest on Sunday took cell phone videos of Chen Baojian, the university’s deputy secretary of the Communist Party committee, warning them via a megaphone to end the protest and talk to him one-on-one.
“Please leave your cell phones, protect Peking University,” said the student, “Is this the protection? What about our rights and interests?”
A crowd of about 200 applauded and cheered as half a dozen protesters broke through the sheet metal barrier behind Chen.
Phone videos were quickly shared on social media, but were just as quickly removed by government censors. Some supportive comments remained, but many were also removed, with some videos remaining on Twitter, which was blocked in China.
“Pink University students are amazing!” wrote one on the popular social media platform Weibo. “Fight for rights. A single spark can start a meadow fire.”
The Communist Party is taking action to quickly suppress most activism and any signs 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 important roles in political movements, including the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and the student-led pro-democracy protests in 1989 centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which was oppressed by the military.
After the protest, university leaders met with student representatives and agreed to remove the sheet metal barrier, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.
A graduate student who took part in the protest, who did not want his name to be released due to possible backlash, said the wall was soon demolished and other concessions were made to students, including free supermarket delivery.
Stating that the university was closed to the settlement of Wanliu 7 days before the protest, the student said, “We achieved our goals on Sunday night.”
The compound is approximately 3 miles southwest of the main Peking University campus, which houses junior professors and graduate students. It also has a gym, a supermarket and other amenities.
Authorities tightened restrictions on access to campuses and on classroom instruction and monitoring of student life, making such protests extremely rare. In 2018, police detained students at schools, including Peking University, which were trying to form alliances with protesting factory workers, who showed they did not tolerate even the slightest attempts at political activism.
China has stubbornly adhered to its zero-COVID policy as most other countries in the world have begun to loosen and gradually return restrictions.
Strict lockdowns, with most public places closed, have wreaked havoc on employment, supply chains, and the economy in general, and are becoming increasingly difficult for people as the highly contagious omicron variant is harder to stop.
In Beijing, authorities restricted more residents to their homes on Tuesday in a now 3-week effort to contain a small but persistent COVID-19 outbreak in the Chinese capital.
Seven adjacent areas in the city’s Fengtai district have been designated as lockdown zones for at least a week, and people have been ordered to stay at home within an area covering approximately 2.5 miles by 3 miles. The area is near a wholesale food market that was closed indefinitely on Saturday after a cluster was discovered there.
The added restrictions come as Shanghai, China’s largest city, begins to slowly ease the city-wide lockdown that has trapped most of its population for more than six weeks.
China registered 1,100 new cases on Monday, the National Health Commission said on Tuesday. Of these, about 800 were in Shanghai and 52 in Beijing. The number of new daily cases in Shanghai has declined steadily for more than two weeks, but officials have been slow to relax restrictions, disappointing residents.
In Beijing, the number of cases remained stable, but new clusters emerged in different parts of the city. City spokesman Xu Hejian said Beijing’s top priority is to screen people associated with the cluster in the wholesale food market and isolate those who test positive. A second wholesale food market in the Fengtai district was closed on Tuesday.
Most of Beijing is unlocked, but many shops are closed and the streets are much quieter than usual as people work from home.