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Backlash at Chinese university shows limits to surveillance

A Chineseuniversity’splantoconduct a blanket search of student and staff electronic devices has come underfire, illustrating the limits of the population’s tolerance for surveillance andraising the prospect that tactics used on Muslim minorities may be creeping into therest of the country.

The Guilin University of ElectronicTechnologyis reconsidering a search of cell phones, computers, external harddisks, and USBdrives after a copyof the order leaked online andtriggeredsuch anintense backlashthat it drew rarecriticism in state-runnewspapers.

Searchesof electronics arecommon inXinjiang inChina’s far west, a heavily Muslim region that has beenturned into a virtualpolice state to tamp down unrest. They are unheard ofin most other areas, includingwhere theschool is located in thesouthernGuangxiregion, a popular touristdestinationknown for spectacularscenery, not violenceorterrorism.

That’s why theplannedchecksworrysome.

“Xinjiang hasemerged asChina’s surveillancelaboratory,” saidJamesLeibold, a scholar of Chineseethnic politicsand nationalidentityatLa TrobeUniversity in Australia. “It isunsurprising that some ofthe methodsfirstpioneered in China’s west are now being rolledout inotherregions.”

Under President Xi Jinping,thegovernmenthas in recentyearstried to tighten controls over what the public seesand says onlineandsteppedup political oversightofuniversities. Sometimes, thesemeasureshaveruninto a new generation ofChineseaccustomed togreaterfreedoms, sparkingpublic outcry and occasionallygovernment retreat.

The leaked noticein Guilin warnedthat hostile domesticgroupsand foreign powers are “wantonlyspreading illicitandillegalvideos” throughthe internet. It said the search forviolent, terrorist, reactionaryand obscenecontent, which was to be conducted this month, wasnecessary to resist andcombatextremist recordingsthat it calledmentallyharmful.

Theorder triggered apublic uproar last week.

Posts on China’s Twitter-likeWeibo site with hashtags on schools checking electronic devices were viewed nearly80 million times. Users voiced privacy concerns, comparing the measure tocomputer chips inserted in brains and the George Orwellnovel “1984.”

Then came criticaleditorials in state-run publications saying the notice could violate Chinese constitutionalprotection of the right tocommunicate freely and have those communicationsremain confidential.

“If colleges and universitiescheckthephones, computers, and hard disks of teachers and students, they’resuspectedof infringing oncommunication freedom and privacy,” said aneditorial in theBeijingYouthDaily. “Those responsible at the school should be heldaccountable, as they had agreat negativeimpact on the school’s image.”

Administrators toldanotherstate-owned publication, “The Paper,” thatthesearch had not yet beencarried out, and that theywere consideringreducing its scope. University and local educationministry officials referredquestions to a media office, whichdid not answerrepeated phone calls.

Weibo, whilenot a government body, raninto hot waterin April when it said it would censor content related to gay issues on itsmicroblog. The company backpedaled under intensecriticism, including fromstate-run publications.

It’s unclear what promptedthe Guilinuniversity’s plannedsearch. It could have been a trialrun to see howthe publicwould react or anoverzealous local administrator, saidChristopher Colley, a National DefenseCollege of the United Arab Emiratesassistant professorwho has lectured atChinese universities.

Either way, hesaid, the backlash showsthat through onlinecensorship iscommon in China, physical searches of phones and laptops is an extreme measurethat many will not accept.

“Most peoplein China are willingto tolerate BigBrother as longas it contributes to social stability, but formany, this isgoingtoo far,” Colleysaid.

Schools in Xinjiang havebeen conducting similarsearches since the region’s highest courtinearly 2014 issued a noticeforbidding audio and video recordings promoting terrorism, religiousextremism, and ethnicdivision.

Teachers and administrators atXinjiang Norma University’s College of Physics and Electronics searched electronic devices inevery dormitory on campus on Nov. 9, 2014. A post about the search on the school’swebsitesays, “Through investigating violentandterroristic videos, religiousextremism on campus has been weakened.”

In 2017, China Universityof Petroleum’s branchin Karamay, a city in oil country in Xinjiang’s north, ordered various schooldepartments to assign inspectors to search the computers of all teachers oncampus.

Xinjiang is home to a large Uighurpopulation, a Muslim ethnic groupthat has long harbored simmering resentment against rule from Beijing. A seriesof riots and attacks blamed on separatist Uighurs has prompted a sweepingcrackdown on Muslims in theregion.

China has rolledout one of the world’s mostaggressive surveillance and policing programs both in Xinjiang and neighboringTibet.

Uighurs are regularly singled out andstopped at checkpointsto have their smartphones scanned forreligious content. As The AssociatedPress reported in May, they risk beingdetained and sent to internmentcamps if police find songs or videos they deem suspicious or apps that are commonlyused to contact people outsideChina, such asWhatsApp.

“Xinjiangtoday appears to be the leadingedge of a highly intrusive and coercive surveillance society that the (CommunistParty) is intent on constructing across China,” Leibold said.

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