China has recently witnessed something unusual for the country since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Thousands of students held protests in China over education reforms, sparking the feelings of nostalgia about the 1989 incident that remains a taboo topic of discussion in mainland China even today. Students from five independent colleges in the Jiangsu Province expressed their opposition to the transfer of undergraduate colleges to ‘vocational’ institutions as a part of education reforms.1 They held agitations openly, without fear of police action, that took the country by surprise. This did not go down well with the Communist Party leaders, not because it was just unprecedented but it occurred a few days after the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident. For decades, Chinese people have been apprehensive of brutal responses from police if they protest for things like rights, democracy, and free speech. However, the recent student protests seem to have broken the glass ceiling through an act of rebellion.
In a rare sight in China, students held protests openly, shouted slogans, and shared their videos on social media.2 The government authorities as expected dealt with the protesting students with an iron hand. Police personnel suppressed the protest by beating the students with batons, using pepper spray, which left many injured. A woman was seen bleeding from a head injury.3 “The school hired auxiliary police who injured, beat, pepper-sprayed, threatened, and verbally abused students,” said one of the protestors. Similar protests were reported from the other universities as well. The crackdowns also saw social media posts related to the protests and police brutalities being censored. The student protest hash tags such as “#NanjingNormalUniversityZhongbeiCollegeStudentsInjuredByViolent LawEnforcment” was blocked.4
Scene of police brutality at Nanjing University, China, June 6, 2021. (China Under CCP/Screenshot via TheBL/YouTube) Source
There were fears among students that their degrees will be downgraded after four provinces – Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, and Jiangxi – came up with a plan to merge independent colleges and vocational institutes.5 It would have created problems for these students in the highly competitive job market of China. It led the anxious students to hit the streets, defying the strict government rules to express their opposition to the move, which subsequently transformed into a large scale student protest that China had not seen in the past three decades. The protesting student gathered at Zhongbei College of Nanjing Normal University and even went on holding the principal hostage for over 30 hours.6
Following the protest, the merger plan has been suspended. While the agitations have been silenced, for now, the students have demanded the government to terminate the plan completely.7 The defying stand assumes significance in the wake of people of Hong Kong –once a hub of democratic values — are now fearful to express their views freely following the imposition of the National Security Law a year ago.8 They did organise an event to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, the response was not as strong as it used to be earlier.9
After the 1989 Tiananmen incident, many protestors were arrested in a countrywide crackdown. Some could escape prison as a few police personnel who sympathised with them secretly helped them. One such is Chen Tianshi, who revealed it after 32 years. Chen, who now lives in the US, recalled how two interrogators understood the protesters’ demands and sympathised with them, and eventually helped him skip a harsh punishment.10 After the 1989 protests, the Chinese government instituted several reforms, convincing people that they can live a good life under the communist party regime. The economic well-being somehow ensured political stability and social harmony and kept the demands for democratic rights below a threat level.11 However, things changed after current President Xi Jinping took over in 2013. To keep a tab on population, Jinping has made excessive use of surveillance and nationalists propaganda. This has led dissent against the state brewing at many places, though it has not become much evident yet.12
SenseTime surveillance software identifying details about people and vehicles runs as a demonstration at the company’s office in Beijing, China. Source
Since 2013, intellectuals, civil rights advocates, and liberal media have been targeted to suppress dissent. “Ten years ago, perhaps every weekend in every corner there would be a large number of salons and meetings in Beijing,” said lecturer Wu Qiang, who was removed from the Tsinghua University for being critical of the Beijing government. “But now, this wonderful scene does not exist anymore… everyone always talks about one issue when we meet: who’s disappeared or been detained recently. Everyone is waiting to see who will be next.”13 In a scenario, students daring to challenge the government’s decision and hold protests openly may not be music to the ears of the Beijing government as the student agitations have a history of bringing revolution and toppling regimes.