Confined to campus under China’s zero-COVID policy, university students are developing strange hobbies like huddling in groups and caring for cardboard pets, prompting concerns about their mental health, according to commentators and news reports.
Video clips uploaded to social media sites in recent days showed a group of young people huddling in a circle on a university sports field, prompting viewers to speculate it was in response to months of campus closures. Officials from the Communications University of China said they are “investigating” the activity.
Social media users captured video clips of similar activities taking place at other universities, including Beijing-based Tsinghua University and the University of International Business and Economics.
One social media user commented, “So this is happening on campus. I get it, whether it’s an activity organized by the students, a game for all, or some kind of performance art. I get bored with age so go past on campus, during what should be the sunniest times for young people, when we have all kinds of socializing before finally entering adult life. Instead, all we see is the dorm, the classroom, and the cafeteria.”
However, the post was found to have been deleted later in the afternoon, with a note stating that 18 “malicious comments” had been removed.
User @Beijing_Fund saw it crawling like a cry for help.
“This type of behavior is intended to attract the attention of the public and an appeal to society to take heed of the mental state of students,” the user wrote.
“Chronic depression requires some kind of release, so some people enjoy it,” @XuJiaoShou added, while @III_Helpless added, “Students are miserable right now, because the gates of the university are locked and they have been punished for online to pronounce… [Leaders’ career records] are more important than letting the students live a normal life.”
Some pro-government voices took a more cautious tone.
“We can tolerate this, but we don’t condone it,” wrote user @Lawyer_Chen_Xiaodou. “But there’s no need to argue that this behavior is harmless and spontaneous.”
“It shouldn’t be banned, but it shouldn’t be promoted either,” @Sima_3_shun wrote. “It’s a group psychological disorder, and this abnormal behavior is how it manifests itself.”
But user @resident_of_planet_714 replied, “Those of you who spend all your time online should try [locked inside] a college campus for three years and see how you like it.”
Unconfirmed reports also circulated on social media that East China Normal University officials took photos of a student crawling alone on campus and sent some security guards to the sports field.
Another post said students organizing crawling activities at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications were reported by Communist Party Youth League officials and brought in to “drink tea,” a euphemism for interrogation by authorities.
The Communication University of China in September removed a notice that included patterns for students to cut out cardboard “pets” for themselves from boxes used for deliveries, raising suspicions that authorities had banned the promotion of the practice.
“Cats and dogs made from discarded cardboard boxes have become popular in colleges and universities across the country, with…Generation Z students tying their ‘cardboard dogs’ outside dorm doors, or ‘walking the dog’ on the field of athletics,” said a recent Weibo post from The Paper about the phenomenon.
It quoted experts as saying the hobby revealed something about students’ mental states.
A blogger using the @Surfing_Voice handle said even extremely passive forms of protest could be penalized by authorities.
“The absurd behavior of students is typical of the times we live in, but even innocent and passive resistance like this will be punished and criticized by the universities,” said the blogger.
“Why do college students live such a limited life? They have spent 10 years preparing for the college entrance exam because it will result in a degree; the cost of losing that [diploma] would be huge,” they said.
“The college students who took to the streets in the 1920s and 1980s were all thinking about… facing the government and standing against corruption, about discussing social issues. [caged] for comparison.”
US-based scholar Zang Zhuo agreed.
“In the crazy and socially disordered era of the pandemic, the more people know, the more they suffer,” he said. “The more energy they have, the easier it is to knock down [mental] to collapse.”
“I cannot condemn the Communist Party enough for their evil deeds, which are driving a cohort of young students insane,” he said, referring to the zero-COVID policy of strict lockdown of university students, but not university staff. or officials.
“It’s not even resistance now, this behavior of university students… This generation of young people in China has been so brainwashed that they… don’t dare to resist and have no sense of social responsibility,” Zang said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.