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COVID in China: Rare protest at an elite university in Beijing

BEIJING –

Administrators at an elite Beijing university have backed out of plans to further tighten pandemic restrictions on students as part of China’s “zero-COVID” strategy after a weekend protest at the school, students said on Tuesday.

Graduate students at Peking University on Sunday staged the rare but peaceful protest against 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 simmering over regulations barring them from ordering food or receiving visitors and daily COVID-19 testing.

A citywide lockdown in Shanghai and expanded restrictions in Beijing in recent weeks have raised questions about the economic and human costs of China’s tight virus controls, which the ruling Communist Party has hailed as a success with much higher death tolls than other major nations. While most people have grumbled in private or online, some Shanghai residents have clashed with police, volunteers and others trying to enforce lockdowns and take infected people to quarantine centers.

Many Peking University students protesting outside a dormitory on Sunday took cellphone video as Chen Baojian, deputy secretary of the university’s Communist Party committee, used a megaphone to exhort them to stop the protest and be one-on-one with him to speak.

“Please put away your cellphones, protect Peking University,” he said, to which a student yelled, “Is that protection? What about our rights and interests?”

The crowd of about 200 clapped and cheered as half a dozen protesters broke through the metal barrier behind Chen.

The phone videos were quickly shared across social media but just as quickly removed by government censors. Some supportive comments remained, although many have also been removed, 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 is acting quickly to quell most of the 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 Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and the student-led pro-democracy protests of 1989 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, led by of the army were crushed.

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 student who attended the protest and did not want her name published because of possible repercussions, said the wall was torn down a short time later and students were given other concessions, including arranging free supermarket deliveries.

“We achieved our goals on Sunday night,” said the student, who said she had been detained in the university’s Wanliu residential complex for seven days before the protest.

Located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) southwest of Peking University’s main campus, the campus is home to young professors and graduate students. It also has a gym, supermarket and other facilities.

Authorities have tightened restrictions on campus access and surveillance of classes and student life, making such protests extremely rare. In 2018, police arrested students at schools, including Peking University, who had attempted to forge alliances with protesting factory workers, showing their refusal to tolerate even mild attempts at political activism.

While most other countries in the world have begun to ease restrictions and gradually reopen, China stubbornly adheres to its zero-COVID policy.

The strict lockdowns that have closed most public areas are having a devastating impact on jobs, supply chains and the economy in general, and are becoming increasingly difficult for people as the highly transmissible Omicron variant proves harder to stop.

In Beijing, authorities on Tuesday confined more residents to their homes in a bid to contain a small but ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the Chinese capital.

Seven adjacent areas in Fengtai District were declared no-go zones for at least a week, with people ordered to stay home in an area about 4 by 5 kilometers (2.5 miles by 3 miles). The area is near a wholesale grocery store that was closed indefinitely on Saturday after a cluster was discovered.

The additional restrictions come as Shanghai, China’s largest city, slowly begins to ease a citywide lockdown that has kept most of the population trapped for more than six weeks.

China recorded 1,100 new cases on Monday, the National Health Commission said on Tuesday. About 800 of them were in Shanghai and 52 in Beijing. The daily number of new cases in Shanghai has been falling steadily for more than two weeks, but authorities have slowly moved to ease restrictions, frustrating local residents.

In Beijing, the number of cases has remained stable, but new clusters have emerged in different parts of the city. City spokesman Xu Hejian said Beijing’s top priority is screening people linked to the cluster at the wholesale food market and isolating those who have tested positive. A second wholesale grocery store in Fengtai District was closed on Tuesday.

Most of Beijing is not under lockdown, but the streets are much quieter than usual as many businesses are closed and people are working from home.


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Rising reports from Bangkok. Associated Press Researcher Chen Si in Shanghai and News Assistant Caroline Chen in Guangzhou, China contributed to this report

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