BEIJING (AP) — 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.