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Beijing students protest lockdown amid rising scrutiny of China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy

Students at Peking University successfully challenged an effort to erect a wall around their off-campus dormitory, saying they should have the same freedoms as staff.
The Wanliu campus of Peking University in Beijing on Monday. Noel Celis / AFP - Getty Images

A prestigious university in China, the only major country that is still pursuing a “zero-Covid” policy, has reversed strict lockdown rules that barred students from leaving their dormitory after they challenged the restrictions in a rare but peaceful protest.

A video shared on Twitter by John Alekna, an assistant professor at Peking University in Beijing, showed a large crowd gathered on Sunday outside the Wanliu compound — an off-campus dormitory for students and staff members — shouting: “Living together, we demand the same rights!” 

One student, who did not want to be named due to possible repercussions, told NBC News that students were upset because their dorms had been locked down while staff and their family members were allowed to leave the compound freely.

She said the university tried to erect a wall that separated students and prevented them from receiving food deliveries and visiting self-study areas, as well as the compound’s central gardens. 

“To deal with the situation, we decided to plan a gathering to ask the university to tear down the wall and ease the increasingly flawed Covid policy,” she said.

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In other videos shared on Chinese social media platforms before they were deleted by censors, Peking University’s vice president, Chen Baojian, could be seen addressing the crowd through a megaphone, telling students to return to their dorms and to discuss the issues with him directly. 

“Guys, the first thing I want you to do is put your phones down, protect Peking University,” he said while a student yelled: “Is that protection? How about our rights?”

The crowd then cheered as protesters tore down the temporary sheet-metal wall that had been installed behind Chen.

According to the student, the wall was taken down on Sunday night following the protest, and a number of other requests made by students — such as the restoration of grocery deliveries as well as shuttle transfers between the compound and university campus — were granted.

Peking University’s Publicity Department later said the incident “wasn’t a protest, it was a reasonable appeal,” adding that the issues raised were “resolved the night it happened.”

A protest at Peking University would be considered especially sensitive by Chinese officials given the school’s history at the center of major political events, including the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the pro-democracy demonstrations that culminated in the deadly 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Officials in the Chinese capital, which is reporting several dozen cases a day of the omicron variant of the virus, have tightened restrictions as they try to avoid a lockdown like the one that has shut down Shanghai for weeks. On Thursday, a spokesman for the suburban district of Fangshan said 670 students and staff members at a university campus were being moved to a centralized quarantine facility after at least one person tested positive, according to state media.

China’s “zero-Covid” strategy, which uses strict lockdowns and mass testing to minimize cases, has faced increased scrutiny as the rest of the world lifts restrictions, including rare criticism from the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. At a news conference on Tuesday, he repeated comments he first made last week that China’s approach was “not sustainable” in the face of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Tedros said WHO officials had shared their views with Chinese experts but that it was up to each country to decide how to handle the pandemic. The Chinese government has defended its strategy as necessary to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week that Tedros’s comments were “irresponsible.”