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Increased Surveillance and Censorship in Universities After China’s White Paper Protests

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Ng Han Guan.

In late 2022, China’s citizenry was swept with an overwhelming sense of bitterness and frustration towards their government’s radical Zero-COVID policy, implemented to handle the resurfacing outbreaks of COVID-19 that had occurred since 2020. This widespread discontent escalated to the level of coordinated protests across Chinese cities and university campuses.

The so-called white paper protests started in November, primarily in response to the Xi Jinping government’s extreme public health measures, which led to dire consequences on the edge of human rights violations, in the name of combatting the spread of COVID-19. The extreme measurements included, but were not limited to, compulsory mass testing, quarantining, and city-wide lockdowns that “smothered the economy” and produced a trauma that left many, including students, with a sense of “deep personal frustration.” Throughout November and December, students coordinated at least 60 protests, demanding that both the state and university administrators relax their policies and transparently turn over the data they were using to inform their decisions to enforce such extreme measures. The demonstrations also served as an opportunity to voice opposition to the rule of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) illustrated by the many students who held pieces of paper stating “We want human rights” and “Down with the Communist Party!”

While the government ultimately lifted the Zero-COVID policy in December, the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) estimated that at least 100 student protesters were detained or “forcibly disappeared” during the peaceful protests, suppressing free speech. Now, following the cancelation of the policy in December 2022, university students and protestors are returning to campus only to encounter heightened surveillance and censorship, a mark of the government’s unabashed attempts to discourage political dissent and suppress freedoms of speech and information.

Many students who were arrested during the protests face an ultimatum: sign promises not to protest and return to campus, or face detention and risk not being able to continue their studies. This is but one form of censorship and surveillance the CCP has used to quell dissenting students across the country. In other instances, previously detained students were allowed back to their university or home under the condition that they remain under “constant supervision,” including periodic chats with police officers. Authorities have also continued to review surveillance footage of the 2022 protests to carry out additional arrests and detentions.

ESW remains concerned with the state of academic freedom in China as we continue to witness systematic attempts by the government to infringe upon basic human rights, including freedom of speech and due legal process. The increased surveillance and indiscriminate arrests of Chinese university students is only one of many egregious breaches of rights under the Xi Jinping government, that include the repression and systematic genocide of Uyghurs in so-called education camps and the continued crackdown on scholars and journalists. ESW demands the cessation of these actions and policies and calls for the release of detained student protestors whose peaceful demonstrations were intended to democratize debate and call attention to the regime’s systematic strategies of repression. We call upon all international organizations, academic and professional associations, and other groups and individuals devoted to the promotion and defense of human rights and academic freedom to join ESW in strongly protesting the regime’s violation of human rights and the threats they pose to academic freedom in China.

Please send appeals to the following:

Xi Jinping

President of the People's Republic of China

Zhong Naihai

Beijing 100032

People's Republic of China

Zhou Qiang

Chief Justice

Supreme People's Court No. 27

Dong Jiao Min Xiang

Beijing 100745

People's Republic of China

Fax: +86 10 6529 2345 (c/o Ministry of Communication)


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