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 cellphones, 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 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.
“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.”
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 back-pedalled 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 though 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. — AP