The highly choreographed return is due to the fact that the Chinese universities are teaching in person again in the fall semester after months of pandemic controls.
Some universities have strict rules on how students eat, bathe, and travel. Students in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai told Reuters that they must submit detailed movement reports and stay on campus.
“But they haven’t yet told us the specific application process or what reason is considered reasonable,” said a student at Renmin University in Beijing.
Renmin University did not respond to a request for comment. A note on his social media account confirms that students must request to leave campus.
At the same time, public procurement records show that dozens of universities have purchased “disease control” surveillance systems based on facial recognition, contact tracing and temperature checks.
There are more than 20 million university students in China. Most live in shared dormitories on campus, which is a challenge for health officials.
On Chinese social media, students have marveled at the controls that reflect restrictions on the general population during the peak of the outbreak in March.
In response to criticism during a media briefing last week, officials from China’s Ministry of Education responded that the measures were not mandatory for universities but that students should not leave campus unless necessary.
They also said that “patriotic health campaigns” would be key to successfully reopening universities and that teaching in “anti-epidemic spirit”, including the “touching deeds” of medical professionals, was mandatory.
Procurement documents posted online by dozen of Chinese universities in the past two months provide a glimpse into campus life in the Covid era and describe technology systems that can be used to exclude outsiders and collect student data.
Many systems require dozens of cameras that can capture facial data and temperatures, as well as notification systems that require students to enter information several times a day.
“We suddenly found dozens of cameras in our dorm building, six on each floor,” said a Peking University student, who asked to remain anonymous.
“It’s like having someone watch you from waking up to sleeping,” said another Peking University student, surnamed Mei, who found cameras in her dormitory on her return this month.
Peking University did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
A system at Liaoning University of Science and Technology cost 429,000 yuan (US $ 62,376) and uses state-of-the-art temperature cameras for facial recognition that can identify people without a mask.
The platform creates a “body temperature report” every day and stores the historical temperatures of the students for 30 days.
Nanchang University in Jiangxi Province spent 158,000 yuan on a system that tracks and records data on students’ movements based on their national ID numbers and facial recognition.
A system at Tianjin Normal University gathers details about the students’ families, the addresses of places they visit off-campus, and how to get to the university.
It can also send reminders to students and teachers, and those who do not respond can be reported to university staff. Students speaking with Reuters confirmed a variety of daily reporting requirements.
The new rules have also created more general challenges, the students said.
Students returning to Nanjing University said they had trouble booking time in dormitory showers between rounds of disinfection.
“Many students cannot wash,” said a Nanjing student surnamed Liu, adding that some sneak in without booking.
Several students said the rules could be disregarded. Liu said the temperature controls at the campus gates were sloppy and the gatekeepers waved their thermometers from afar.
Others said they feared the new surveillance technology would outlast the pandemic.
“I think there is this concern among the students, but there is no choice but to accept it,” said Mei, the student at Peking University.