‘Collective crawling’ and cardboard dogs ‘are creative protests’

Bizarre phenomena on Chinese university campuses go beyond manifestations of student boredom, according to academics

December 16, 2022
A worker places a barrier in Beijing, China to illustrate ‘Collective crawling’ and cardboard dogs ‘are creative protests’
Source: Getty

Even as China ramps down its zero-Covid policy, its response to the virus has left a lasting mark on students – who have found creative ways of protesting without triggering a response by authorities.

In recent weeks, Beijing has done a 180-degree pivot on coronavirus, moving from harsh containment measures, including daily testing and lockdowns, to encouraging the public to live with the disease. For many of China’s citizens – especially students – the reversal is a welcome development.

In November, in a rare public show of dissent, learners from dozens of campuses took to the streets to protest against three years of harsh pandemic measures under president Xi Jinping, even as citizens faced off with authorities in numerous Chinese cities.

While many more refrained from protesting, recent bizarre phenomena on campuses show that Chinese students – even those uninclined to denounce the government – have found less political ways of making their frustration heard.

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Earlier this autumn, reports emerged that some students had left their dormitories to crawl in circles on their hands and knees, a phenomenon dubbed “collective crawling”. The came after students went viral for making cardboard dogs, reportedly in an attempt to ease boredom and frustration.

Online, others have penned nonsensical literature, noted Jiangnan Zhu, an associate professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong. She described the entries as “incoherent words, which [make] no clear sense, sometimes with many emojis”, adding that the action shows “similar sentiment” to collective crawling.  

More recently, students have held up blank pieces of paper – a move now seen as too provocative by authorities. 

Beyond being a way of voicing boredom, these behaviours are a form of depoliticised protest, believe some academics, including Ed Vickers, a researcher in the contemporary history of education in Chinese societies at Kyushu University.

“We’re seeing lots of young Chinese people at the end of their tether after seemingly never-ending cycles of lockdown, and constant, intrusive monitoring,” said Dr Vickers.

“While a few brave souls may chant for Xi Jinping to step down at the risk of arrest and incarceration, more will try to find ways of expressing dissatisfaction without directly challenging the regime and thus triggering draconian sanctions.”

Sicong Chen, an associate professor in education at Kyushu, agreed.

“I would argue that such behaviours as collective crawling and cardboard dog walking suggest not the crisis or deterioration of Chinese youth’s mental health but their competence to express feelings and ideas in creative ways that bypass censorship and resonate with fellow students…This collective resonance is what the authoritarian regime fears and wants to stamp out,” he said.

“While the zero-Covid lockdowns seem to be easing following the protests in which university students took a significant role, Chinese young people’s creative expressions will not, especially at a time when normal, conventional ways of expression are banned or restricted.”

A student at the elite Peking University (PKU), who wished to remain anonymous, told Times Higher Education that China’s students should not be underestimated.

“They are not just merely expressing their dissatisfaction with the lockdown but expressing concerns and confusion about the nation’s development and future,” he said.

“Their negative emotional status is not just caused by being locked down, but by disappointment and confusion…about the stricter censorship and the backsliding of upper politics.”


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