University students in Beijing have been allowed to leave closed campuses and return home after hundreds gathered on campus on Tuesday night to vent their frustration at the Chinese capital’s hardline Covid-19 control measures.
Beijing Education Commission spokesman Li Yi said on Wednesday that universities were key areas of epidemic control and campuses needed to remain closed, but universities could be flexible and allow students to return to their hometowns.
“Students can return to their homes and hometowns in a safe and orderly manner…Students need to be guided with good protection and return directly to their families in closed-loop management,” Li said.
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The decision came after students at Beijing Normal University gathered on campus in protest over uncertainty stemming from the pandemic restrictions.
Video footage circulating on social media showed students assembled outside a stadium, before moving their protest to a central square on campus.
According to posts on social media platforms such as Weibo, the students were demanding to know when and how their final exams would take place, and whether they would be allowed to leave campus and return home.
University campuses have been closed for weeks in Beijing, as the city battles to control an Omicron outbreak that has seen about 1,600 infections since April 22. Another 47 local cases were reported on Wednesday.
The students’ demonstration came a day after Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan pledged tougher and more thorough measures to eliminate infections outside Beijing’s controlled areas.
Word of the protest began when a poster titled “BNUer United” was uploaded to a social media channel.
The post said the students should meet on a square on campus before 8pm, play the school anthem on their mobile phones, turn on their phone’s torch, wear masks and protect their privacy, according to participants.
The students said they had no idea who uploaded the poster but a crowd gathered at the square by around 8.30pm and swelled to more than 500 late into the night.
“But it was not an organised protest,” one participant said. “The students had a chat with school officials to discuss the policies of going home and taking exams. The atmosphere was very calm.”
Another student said many staff were already waiting when she arrived at the square but the students were not forced to leave.
She said the students had various demands and not everyone agreed with the content of the poster.
“[The conflicts are] mainly because the school did not send out a notice, no information is available, and the teachers didn’t know anything either.”
After talks with university management and teachers, the students left the square before midnight, according to social media posts. They were promised the policy would be studied overnight and official notice of a decision provided on Wednesday.
There was also an assurance that there would be no punishment for taking part in the demonstration. Other demands, such as a return to dining-in at the university’s canteens, were met on Wednesday, according to social media posts.
The university did not respond to a request for comment.
According to some of the students, the university’s pandemic control task force posted a notice on the university’s internal website announcing that most exams had been postponed to the next semester and some would be conducted online.
Students are allowed to apply to go home if they meet one of three criteria: have completed this semester’s studies at school, can continue to study at home if the work is not completed, or have reasons related to health, family or employment.
The conditions are subject to pandemic rules in local communities.
But one of the major concerns expressed by the Beijing Normal University students was that their home communities might not allow them to return if the capital’s outbreak worsens. Another worry was that they could be taken away for isolation if any cases are found on campus.
Last week, nearly 700 students from the Fangshan district campus of the Beijing Institute of Technology were removed for central isolation after four students were found to be Covid-19 positive.
Some universities, such as the Communication University of China, refused to allow students to return for the spring semester. Some campuses in Beijing have started to release students before the end of term, as long as their communities agree to take them.
Earlier this month, hundreds of students at Peking University’s Wanliu compound staged a protest over plans to separate them from faculty staff with a wall of sheet metal.
The university backed down from the arrangement, which would have barred students from leaving the compound while allowing staff to move about freely.
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