China’s elite universities have sealed their campuses and encouraged students to return home after the implementation of harsh restrictions to quash Covid-19 outbreaks sparked discontent and protests.
Students at the country’s top two universities, Tsinghua and Peking, have been prevented from leaving their campuses for weeks as the schools enforce their own Covid bubbles. Parcels containing packaged food, alcohol or clothes bought online are first isolated and sprayed with disinfectants before students can pick them up.
An Omicron outbreak has hobbled China since March, with officials adopting ever more extreme measures to stamp out the highly infectious variant as part of President Xi Jinping’s strict zero-Covid policy.
Officials in cities across China have employed some of the toughest tactics at college campuses, where students are typically housed six to a room in dormitories, making any outbreak difficult to control.
Tsinghua recently fortified a fence enclosing the campus with metal sheeting to prevent separated couples from holding hands through open slats and deliverymen from passing in hot food.
When a makeshift fence was installed at nearby Peking University this month, dozens of students protested. Videos shared online showed students tearing down the fences and booing university staff.
“Peking University has been the site of very influential political protests in the past, including in the 1980s culminating in the 1989 student protests that necessitated a bloody crackdown from the Chinese government,” said Victor Shih, professor of Chinese politics at UC San Diego.
“Politically this is worrisome for both municipal [officials] and potentially for central government,” he said.
Videos and discussion of the Peking University student protests were quickly censored on Chinese social media. Over the weekend, the university urged some students to leave the campus altogether.
“If you choose not to return home at present, we hope that you will not complain and make trouble,” said the message sent to some students and seen by the Financial Times.
At Tsinghua, home to China’s budding scientists and engineers, university authorities have carried out 20 consecutive rounds of campuswide testing. Despite finding no cases, university officials have closed dining halls and on Monday offered students the option to apply to return home.
Tsinghua University’s Schwarzman College offered all its international students seats on “the next available flight” in an email.
Some international students and staff have already left. Arthur Rubellin, a French teacher at Peking University, left the country on Saturday after being trapped on campus for more than two weeks.
“We weren’t allowed deliveries. The supermarket hadn’t been restocked. Getting food was very stressful,” Rubellin said. “We hadn’t received any updates [from the university authorities].”
The tough measures at universities in the Chinese capital resembled those in other cities as school administrators attempt to stamp out Covid outbreaks.
At the height of an outbreak in Shanghai, students at Tongji University were locked in dorm rooms and needed hall passes to go to the bathroom. Students responded by heckling university leaders online.
A Covid wave at the Beijing Institute of Technology last week, in which the Omicron variant quickly infected about a dozen students, demonstrated the difficulty of keeping the virus out of college campuses.
City authorities immediately transferred 670 students from the campus to centralised quarantine facilities, according to state media.
Additional reporting by Arjun Neil Alim and Sun Yu in Beijing