BEIJING – A Chinese–university’s–plan–to–conduct a blanket search of student and staff electronic devices has come under–fire, illustrating the limits of the population’s tolerance for surveillance and–raising the prospect that tactics used on Muslim minorities may be creeping into the–rest of the country.
The Guilin University of Electronic–Technology–is reconsidering a search of cell phones, computers, external hard–disks, and USB–drives after a copy–of the order leaked online and–triggered–such an–intense backlash–that it drew rare–criticism in state-run–newspapers.
Searches–of electronics are–common in–Xinjiang in–China’s far west, a heavily Muslim region that has been–turned into a virtual–police state to tamp down unrest. They are unheard of–in most other areas, including–where the–school is located in the–southern–Guangxi–region, a popular tourist–destination–known for spectacular–scenery, not violence–or–terrorism.
That’s why the–planned–checks–worry–some.
“Xinjiang has–emerged as–China’s surveillance–laboratory,” said–James–Leibold, a scholar of Chinese–ethnic politics–and national–identity–at–La Trobe–University in Australia. “It is–unsurprising that some of–the methods–first–pioneered in China’s west are now being rolled–out in–other–regions.”
Under President Xi Jinping,–the–government–has in recent–years–tried to tighten controls over what the public sees–and says online–and–stepped–up political oversight–of–universities. Sometimes, these–measures–have–run–into a new generation of–Chinese–accustomed to–greater–freedoms, sparking–public outcry and occasionally–government retreat.
The leaked notice–in Guilin warned–that hostile domestic–groups–and foreign powers are “wantonly–spreading illicit–and–illegal–videos” through–the internet. It said the search for–violent, terrorist, reactionary–and obscene–content, which was to be conducted this month, was–necessary to resist and–combat–extremist recordings–that it called–mentally–harmful.
The–order triggered a–public uproar last week.
Posts on China’s Twitter-like–Weibo site with hashtags on schools checking electronic devices were viewed nearly–80 million times. Users voiced privacy concerns, comparing the measure to–computer chips inserted in brains and the George Orwell–novel “1984.”
Then came critical–editorials in state-run publications saying the notice could violate Chinese constitutional–protection of the right to–communicate freely and have those communications–remain confidential.
“If colleges and universities–check–the–phones, computers, and hard disks of teachers and students, they’re–suspected–of infringing on–communication freedom and privacy,” said an–editorial in the–Beijing–Youth–Daily. “Those responsible at the school should be held–accountable, as they had a–great negative–impact on the school’s image.”
Administrators told–another–state-owned publication, “The Paper,” that–the–search had not yet been–carried out, and that they–were considering–reducing its scope. University and local education–ministry officials referred–questions to a media office, which–did not answer–repeated phone calls.
Weibo, while–not a government body, ran–into hot water–in April when it said it would censor content related to gay issues on its–microblog. The company backpedaled under intense–criticism, including from–state-run publications.
It’s unclear what prompted–the Guilin–university’s planned–search. It could have been a trial–run to see how–the public–would react or an–overzealous local administrator, said–Christopher Colley, a National Defense–College of the United Arab Emirates–assistant professor–who has lectured at–Chinese universities.
Either way, he–said, the backlash shows–that through online–censorship is–common in China, physical searches of phones and laptops is an extreme measure–that many will not accept.
“Most people–in China are willing–to tolerate Big–Brother as long–as it contributes to social stability, but for–many, this is–going–too far,” Colley–said.
Schools in Xinjiang have–been conducting similar–searches since the region’s highest court–in–early 2014 issued a notice–forbidding audio and video recordings promoting terrorism, religious–extremism, and ethnic–division.
Teachers and administrators at–Xinjiang Norma– University’s College of Physics and Electronics searched electronic devices in–every dormitory on campus on Nov. 9, 2014. A post about the search on the school’s–website–says, “Through investigating violent–and–terroristic videos, religious–extremism on campus has been weakened.”
In 2017, China University–of Petroleum’s branch–in Karamay, a city in oil country in Xinjiang’s north, ordered various school–departments to assign inspectors to search the computers of all teachers on–campus.
Xinjiang is home to a large Uighur–population, a Muslim ethnic group–that has long harbored simmering resentment against rule from Beijing. A series–of riots and attacks blamed on separatist Uighurs has prompted a sweeping–crackdown on Muslims in the–region.
China has rolled–out one of the world’s most–aggressive surveillance and policing programs both in Xinjiang and neighboring–Tibet.
Uighurs are regularly singled out and–stopped at checkpoints–to have their smartphones scanned for–religious content. As The Associated–Press reported in May, they risk being–detained and sent to internment–camps if police find songs or videos they deem suspicious or apps that are commonly–used to contact people outside–China, such as–WhatsApp.
“Xinjiang–today appears to be the leading–edge of a highly intrusive and coercive surveillance society that the (Communist–Party) is intent on constructing across China,” Leibold said.