ffrom From the May Fourth Movement in 1919 to the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square seven decades later, university students have played a central role in China’s largest protests. Therefore, the Communist Party is sensitive to the risk of campus unrest. Under Xi Jinping, it has ramped up its indoctrination efforts. When Xi Jinping visited Tsinghua University, his alma mater, last year, he implored students to have “full confidence in China’s socialist system”.
But many students feel the system has let them down. Over the past year, there have been sporadic protests on campus. There were more this past week, coinciding with demonstrations against covid-19 control in major cities.
For students, it’s not just a draconian lockdown. Some people are frustrated by their lack of freedom. Young protesters on and off campus have begun holding up blank papers to emphasize China’s tight controls on speech. Tsinghua students held up the Friedman equation in a more intellectual form of rebellion. These are the formulas that describe the expansion of the universe. “Friedman” also happens to sound a lot like “Free Man.”
Discontent among college students has been growing for years. About 12 million graduates next year will grow during a period of strong economic growth. They arrived on campus in 2019, probably hoping to have a good time before starting their careers. Instead, they are often locked in dormitories and forced to take classes online. Chelsea, a university student in Beijing, described a swimming lesson: “They had to pretend to swim on the bed, and then they took a video and sent it to the teacher. They would practice holding their breath in the sink.” The students start crawling around in circles together. “Group crawling is a rebellion against lack of freedom,” one student said in an essay posted online.
When the class of 2023 graduates, they will also face a different economic climate. The unemployment rate of urban population aged 16-24 in China is close to 18%. Covid restrictions are partly to blame. But Mr. Xi has also sapped the dynamism of the private sector by cracking down on the tech industry and tightening state control. More and more students are competing for lower paying but stable government jobs. Others choose postgraduate study in the hope that the job market will improve when they graduate.
Some university administrators have sat down with students to discuss COVID control. Others are taking a different approach. “One day you will pay for what you have done today,” an official told protesters at the Communication University of China in Nanjing. Several universities are encouraging students to go home, even though winter break doesn’t start until January.
With the police crackdown, this round of protests may subside. But students’ frustration is clearly growing. “Everyone is anxious,” Chelsea said. Xi Jinping has no placebo. At the party’s five-yearly congress in October and in subsequent speeches, he implored young people to work harder, pursue realistic goals and “renounce arrogance and connivance”. inspirational stuff.■
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