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Students and locals, many of them Chinese expats, gather at Columbia University in New York to protest China’s COVID lockdown policies, echoing a wave of similar protests on campuses in China.

Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

China’s strict zero-COVID policy, still in effect nearly three years into the pandemic, has become a lightning rod for criticism of the government. University campuses have been at the vanguard of these public displays of dissent, which gained momentum after an apartment fire Thursday in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed 10 people who many say could have been saved if not for strict lockdown measures.

On Saturday, in the face of fierce local protests in Urumqi, the Chinese government announced that it would ease restrictions there. But the fuse was already lit for an explosive weekend of protests across the country, especially on campuses.

By Sunday evening, students at nearly 80 campuses across China were demonstrating against the lockdown measures, according to University World News; by Monday the movement had gone global, with Chinese international students on dozens of campuses organizing similar gatherings.

Students at the Communication University of China in Nanjing held a vigil for those who died in the Urumqi fire; some made speeches decrying the country’s draconian lockdown measures. At Peking University, where antilockdown protests made headlines in May, students gathered to express their support for the movement and renew calls for the government to ease pandemic restrictions. And at Tsinghua University in Beijing, President Xi Jinping’s alma mater and one of China’s most elite institutions, scores of students assembled Sunday in a rare mass demonstration, chanting for an end to the zero-COVID policy.

But much of the momentum ground to a halt Monday as police arrived and sent students back to their hometowns aboard designated trains, according to state media sources. Some students had been locked down in heavily guarded campuses and residence halls for weeks or even months beforehand, giving them ample time to stew—not just about the restrictions but also about broader issues with Chinese higher education.

“On campuses in China, the COVID discontent has morphed into concerns about academic freedom and access to information,” said Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “I’m sure that’s what the Chinese authorities are really worried about at the moment.”

What Students Risk in Speaking Out

While some Chinese universities have reportedly promised students they would not be punished for participating in protests, university administrations’ investigations into student activity early this week have cast doubts on that claim. The principal of the Communication University of China told students who participated in a vigil for the Urumqi fire victims on Saturday, “One day you will pay for everything you did,” according to reports from Reuters.

One Chinese student told Inside Higher Ed that even though he wanted to speak out, he was afraid his institution would punish him. His peers shared the same concerns, he said.

“The cost is heavy,” said the student, who asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisal. “If we try to do something, the university would not allow us to graduate.”

The risks of detainment or punishment extend to American students studying in China through exchange and study abroad programs, as well as on the handful of U.S. branch campuses there.

Mary Gallagher, professor of democracy, democratization and human rights at the University of Michigan and the director of its International Institute, said that U.S. students in China should exercise prudence and restraint when deciding whether to join protests against the government. This is primarily to ensure their safety, she said, but also to avoid feeding into the official state narrative that the antilockdown protests were provoked by “hostile foreign forces.”

“American students need to be aware that when they go to China, they can’t behave like they would here,” she said. “In terms of these protests, I would be extremely careful if I was a foreign student. I wouldn’t get involved.”

A spokesperson for New York University’s campus in Shanghai said that while the university is “aware of the situation,” ultimately its students are responsible for knowing and observing the law of the land in their actions off campus.

“Our focus at NYU Shanghai remains on supporting students,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “When it comes to activities off campus outside our community, everyone makes their own decisions about where to go and what to do. When they engage with the larger society, they are fully subject to Chinese law.”

Chris Simmons, Duke University’s vice president for government relations, said the university, which has a campus in the Chinese city of Kunshan, had no comment at the moment. But, he added, they are“watching the developments closely.”

For Gallagher, the current protests feel familiar. She studied at China’s Nanjing University in 1989, at the height of another period of social unrest and government repression on Chinese campuses that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the Chinese military brutalized and killed thousands of protesters, mostly students.

“Right now, it’s probably somewhat similar to that period: very shut down, people are afraid to talk to you, your freedoms are restricted, you’re isolated from getting to know other students,” she said.

Solidarity From Abroad

Even as protests in China appear to be dying down, students around the world—many of them Chinese nationals—are protesting in solidarity with their peers on the mainland, flooding campuses with symbolic blank pieces of white paper and hosting candlelight vigils on frigid quads.

On Monday night more than 100 students in the Washington, D.C., area gathered at George Washington University for one such vigil, mirroring similar gatherings on campuses in China. Rory O’Connor, co-founder of the youth-led pro-democracy organization Athenai Institute and a junior at Catholic University who helped organize the vigil at GW, said it was largely facilitated and attended by students from China as a way to “act in solidarity with their peers in the [People’s Republic of China].”

O’Connor pointed out that for Chinese nationals—even those studying at an American university—participating in such a protest poses a real risk. Such gatherings are often attended by representatives from the Chinese Embassy or members of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, which have been known to report international students who speak out against the government, he said.

“Chinese students here are coming up with very creative ways to actually organize, in spite of the very long arm of the Chinese Communist Party,” O’Connor said.

Some student protesters wore masks or sunglasses to hide their identities. Others, however, bared their faces to speak—about the injustice of the zero-COVID policy, the repression of academic freedom and more.

“I’ve worked with Chinese youth pro-democracy movements in the U.S. for three years now, and I’ve never seen this kind of energy and boldness before,” O’Connor said. “The atmosphere was defiant. There’s really no other way to describe it.”

Tensions Threaten U.S.-China Higher Ed Partnerships

Altbach said if there’s a Tiananmen-style crackdown on campus protests, the reputational and political—not to mention ethical—drawbacks for American institutions maintaining partnerships in China will start to outweigh any benefits.

“If these student demonstrations expand and there’s significant violent or even semiviolent putting down of the revolts, then the ball game is essentially over,” he said.

But the more likely outcome, Altbach predicted, is that the protest movement dissipates or is quietly quelled, and ties between U.S. institutions and their partners in China will continue slowly eroding—as they have been for years.

“There’s been a lot of investment, not just from the Chinese side but from American institutions as well. But how long these partnerships, especially branch campuses like NYU and Duke, can last in this environment is really unclear,” he said. “The era of good feeling has been over for a while, and the current unrest certainly won’t help.”

Gallagher still believes that for students, the pros of living and studying in China greatly outweigh the cons of dealing with censorship and the repressive government, though she understands the reservations brought on by the pandemic and restrictive zero-COVID policy.

“The unfortunate thing is that this is probably going to cause a generational chasm, both COVID and what’s going on now,” she said. “We’re going to lose a whole generation of American students who study in China, study Chinese and know the country well as they live there.”

“We’re a bit like the frogs boiling in the pot,” Altbach said. “Foreign institutions, maybe even students and faculty, are gonna wake up and find themselves boiled. Then they’ll try to jump out of the pot quickly.”

“Regardless, it’s getting hotter,” he added. “And that’s being noticed.”

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