The gate of the university campus at Chengdu's Southwestern University of Finance and Economics was closed and machines are placed.
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Most universities in Mainland China have relaxed restrictions on leaving campus, after students protested to voice their discontent.

By Gloria Wei in Harbin & Lynne Rao in Luzhou

A protest against campus quarantine policy broke out in Xi’an International Studies University student hostels on the night of September 20, 23 days after the policy was implemented. Students living on campus shouted slogans like ‘let me out’ from their hostels for about half an hour. 

The chanting was so loud that Daisy Wu*, a Year Three student majoring in tourism management, was woken up. 

“I went to bed earlier than usual after an exhausting day and was awakened by screams at around 11 p.m. I guess hundreds of students joined the protest,” she says.  

Similar protest was held on other university campuses across China.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, university students were banned from leaving their campus freely since late August. Students were required to seek official approval for leaving campus, while university staff such as professors and lecturers could come and go freely. 

Notice informing students cannot go out freely.

Wu was not surprised with the protest because most of her peers were unhappy with the campus lockdown.

“As we could not go out freely and order takeaway food, we had to rely on stores on campus to buy things. But the prices increased sharply,” Wu says.

“And the water supply system in hostels was broken the day before the protest,” she adds.

After the protest, Xi’an International Studies University relaxed the restriction and took actions to upgrade campus facilities such as fixing water supply system for students.

“Prices of goods at campus stores have gone down, and food delivery service has resumed,” Wu says.

“I went home for the national holiday. It is great that now we don’t have to stay at school all the time anymore,” she adds. 

Students getting takeaway food through fences. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Tang)

Students in other universities were also furious about the quarantine policy on campus.

Many students expressed their anger by leaving satire comments: “As we all know virus only infects students” and “Students and dogs are not allowed to go out” under the official account of the People’s Daily on Weibo, the Chinese twitter.

Responding to the protests, Wang Dengfeng, an official in charge of virus prevention at the Ministry of Education, said in a press conference on August 27: “Universities should not prohibit students from leaving campus and they can go out if necessary” and “Students and staff should be treated equally”. 

But most university campuses did not revoke the quarantine policy at once, students continued complaining that it was still hard for them to go out.

A thread entitled “Should universities adopt closure management?” was read for more than 300 million times until September 7 on Weibo.  

Emily Mao, a law major student who studies in a university located in Kunming, capital city of her hometown, Yunnan, has to climb a wall secretly to leave the campus every weekend since September. She is not willing to reveal the name of her university for fear of being penalised. 

According to a regulation enforced by her faculty, students cannot go out unless they have a written request for leave signed by a counselor, an associate dean and the vice secretary of the faculty. 

“The Ministry of Education’s remarks cannot satisfy me because the definition of ‘if necessary’ is vague. I think going home regularly to get clothes is necessary, but the university does not think so,” she says.

“I think going home regularly to get clothes is necessary, but the university does not think so.”

The 20-year-old girl tried applying for leaving campus to have a week-long of national holiday at home. But her request got rejected on September 29 because the university management thought the leave period was too long.

On the next day, Mao climbed a wall and had dinner in a restaurant with several other friends who also left campus without permission. 

After the national holiday, climbing wall to go out was strictly prohibited because more and more students began to do so. 

The university arranged staff to patrol around the wall. Students caught leaving campus without permission will be punished, and the incident will be marked in their files. 

“This may affect us when we apply for postgraduate program and look for jobs,” Mao says.

Guards checking everyone who enters and leaves school. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Luo)

The university quarantine policy also affected students’ internship opportunity. 

Alice Zhao, a Year Three student studying accounting at Qingdao University of Science and Technology, was forced to give up her internship opportunity at an accounting company in Qingdao. 

She received an offer in summer this year and was required to work in the office two days every week. “I had to reject the offer, as it was too inconvenient to leave campus,” Zhao says.

“I must ask my tutor for permission every time before I go to work,” she adds. 

“I had to reject the offer, as it was too inconvenient to leave campus.”

Although students are outraged by the quarantine policy, Wang Mu*, a professor and tutor at the Harbin Normal University, thinks that the policy is reasonable and necessary.

“To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the university has to limit people’s mobility as much as possible. Since most teachers are also husbands or wives who need to take care of children and the elderly in the family, the universities can only limit students going out.” Wang says. 

In early September, Harbin Normal University decided to relax quarantine regulation after student protest erupted at Harbin Guangsha University. Harbin Guangsha University also lifted the restriction after the protest.

“Actually, university management cares about what students think. That is why students now can go to restaurants and movie theatres freely,” Wang says.  

Most universities in China have relaxed quarantine restrictions after the national holiday which covers the first week of October.

But the policy may be introduced again because of the uncertainty of the pandemic, especially during winter.

The quarantine policy adopted by universities in Qingdao become stricter after three confirmed cases were reported in the province on October 11. 

Alice Zhao*, who is studying accounting at the Qingdao University of Science and Technology, says it is even more difficult to go out of school now.

Students of Qingdao University of Science and Technology need to ask for approval before leaving campus. (Photo courtesy of Alice Zhao)

“The pass card used to enter and leave campus is cancelled, and requests of leaving campus are less likely to be approved,” Zhao says. 

*Name changed at interviewee’s request 

Edited by Lasley Lui & Regina Chen