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Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

Lockdowns in schools and the ever-intensifying political atmosphere in China have made university students like Xin depressed. Harsh lockdowns nationwide, stories spread of deaths linked to the pandemic controls ... all the news made her feel "suffocated," she said.

She wanted to express her emotions, but there were no outlets. State-controlled media limited comments and discussions, while with strict censorship meant social media accounts are regularly blocked if COVID controls are discussed.

Xin said that the public group crawling is "for people to forget these things temporarily, and to air our frustration in a simple way."

Crawling and cardboard dogs

It all started on Nov. 8, when a student posted in an anonymous forum. "Can I ask if you would be frightened to see someone crawling on the ground in school? If not, then I will do that tomorrow." Many responded to the post and eventually four students were seen crawling at Beijing's The Communication University of China, with crowds quickly gathering around to watch and cheer. Then the act spread nationwide.

Screaming, twisting, crawling on the ground ... These spontaneous university student actions are a public representation of life under harsh lockdowns. Such illogical, emotionally charged action, which simulates a state of madness, has become a popular expression for young people to vent their frustration.

Crawling was deemed to be a more radical way of expression.

Ding, a university student in Beijing, thinks that "crawling" is a symbol of insanity for the masses. "It is strongly bonded with everyone's oppressed madness psychologically." Xin also agrees that as there is no space for one to let go of mental stress online, crawling has become a coping mechanism, just like lying down or going out for a walk, especially in the context of strict closures in universities.

To some degree it recalls the trend earlier in the pandemic of people making cardboard dogs. University students under lockdown would make their own dogs, and "take them out" for a walk to create new ways of social contact. It was their unique emotional expression and response to their dilemma and anxiety of such times.

But crawling was deemed to be a more radical way of expression — and indeed soon caught the attention of the authorities.

What's the purpose?

The students at Jiang’s university organized a crawling competition, which was seen and reported by security guards. Teachers were lurking in student group chats to track the purpose of the crawl, but the students identified them .

"We never thoroughly discuss (the purpose of crawling) with each other. We would just say something abstract or ‘crazy’.“ Jiang believes that people will instinctively avoid this issue, and only in private conversations will some people admit that they are using it as a form of resistance.

Security guards are coming, run!

In fact, the very concept of "purpose" has also become a hot topic on the Chinese internet. "What is your purpose in posting this?," the authorities demand to know. Who instructed you to do this? What is your motivation? Did you get permission from the authorities? Did they allow you to post it? Who is behind you? Who are you satirizing? What are you trying to subvert? What are you trying to destroy? What are you insinuating?"

Ding acknowledges the political nature: "The crawl is in any case an expression of repression, of madness, and it became the metaphor of resistance against the mad reality we are facing. We want to use the crawl as a kind of questioning – look we are all crazy, what is this all about?"

Investigating "anti-China" forces

The day after Xin's crawl, she received an "urgent reminder" from her friend – photos and videos of students crawling had been leaked to teachers, and school authorities were now tracking down those who had participated.

Xin quicked changed the privacy settings for her social media, but she was also angry. "How could my photos be sent to the school authority without me knowing? And how can the school ask students to spy on one another?" Her school's sports fields were immediately closed down, and students were gathered in an assembly to be told that "one should not crawl on the ground."

Ding also had a similar experience. When he was crawling with a few others, someone alerted them in the group chat: "Security guards are coming, run!" Some group chats were taken down as "political factors are now associated with crawling", and there was even news that some universities are investigating the "anti-China forces" behind it.

The Education Bureau of Guangdong province has already taken action, posting the following message: "Recently, some universities in China have seen students crawling in the playing fields to express their dissatisfaction with pandemic rules and national policies. Effective immediately, we will strengthen the education and management of students as well as online and offline inspection and control on campus."

An online commenter reacted: "Now we have lost our freedom of crawling."

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