Fears rise for safety of student protesters amid arrests

The United Nations, human rights groups and alumni organisations of prominent Chinese universities have called on the Chinese authorities to refrain from cracking down on the students and other protesters who were involved in last weekend’s peaceful demonstrations against the government’s prolonged harsh anti-virus measures.

Protests have been held on more than 100 university campuses, according to independent analysis of reports on social media. Local authorities have said via social media that records of campus incidents were being “investigated”, which some students fear could lead to more punishment.

As reports of arrests have emerged, UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence on 28 November said: “No one should be arbitrarily detained for peacefully expressing their opinions.”

Laurence said allowing broad debate across society, especially among young people, “can help shape public policies, ensure they are better understood and are ultimately more effective”.

In defence of human rights

Amnesty International in a statement this week also urged Beijing to allow people to express themselves. “It is virtually impossible for people in China to protest peacefully without facing harassment and prosecution. Authorities have shown zero tolerance to opposition, especially in the last 10 years under President Xi [Jinping], but this has not stopped the protests.

“Instead of penalising the people, the government should listen to their calls. Authorities must let people express their thoughts freely and protest peacefully without fear of retaliation,” said Hana Young, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director.

“People across China are taking extraordinary risks to demand their human rights,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese authorities should not suppress the protests but instead allow everyone to peacefully express their views.”

An unknown number of students have been arrested after campus protests on the weekend of 26-27 November that spread swiftly to over 100 universities and colleges around the country, according to Chinese social media reports and University World News contacts. Some students were released after signing confession statements, while others are being detained and have had mobile phones confiscated.

Universities, keen to pre-empt any fresh protests, are not imposing severe penalties. At several universities that saw protests at the weekend, university officials have been keen to appear lenient, describing the protests as small scale and “foreign influenced”. Students were also this week being encouraged to leave for home early, before the normal semester ends, with some universities offering free train fares to students.

Tsinghua University, which saw large protests on Sunday with dozens of students involved, and which sparked much excitement on social media when videos began to emerge, announced it would offer students free transport to major railway stations and airports in Beijing.

Students at universities in Shanghai have also been told to go home early and continue classes online. Exams, including the National Civil Service Administration exam on 10 December, for which 2.5 million students are registered, have been postponed.

Appeal by Tsinghua alumni

In an open letter published on Chinese social media a day after the 27 November protests, a group of alumni of Tsinghua University said they were aware of the risks that students faced in expressing their views.

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