This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Locked down on campus under China’s zero-COVID policy, university students are developing odd hobbies like group crawling and caring for cardboard pets, prompting concerns for 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 crawling around after each other in a circle on a college sports field, prompting viewers to speculate it was a reaction to months-long campus lockdowns. Officials at the Communications University of China said they were “looking into” the activity.
Social media users shot video clips of similar activities going on 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, regardless of whether it is an activity organized by the students, a game for everyone, or a kind of performance art. I am so bored as the years go by on campus, during what should be the sunniest times for youth, when we have all kinds of social contact before finally starting adult life. Instead, all we see are the dorm, the classroom and the canteen.”
However, the post appeared to have been deleted later in the afternoon, with a note saying that 18 “malicious comments” had been deleted.
User @Beijing_Fund saw the crawling as a cry for help.
“This sort of behavior is aimed at attracting public attention, and a call for society to take heed of the mental state of college students,” the user wrote.
“Chronic depression requires some kind of release, so some people are having some fun doing this,” added @XuJiaoShou, while @III_Helpless added: “College students are miserable right now, because the college gates are locked, and they have been punished for speaking out online … [Leaders’ career records] are more important than allowing the students to live normal lives.”
Some pro-government voices took a more cautious tone.
“We can tolerate this, but we don’t condone it,” user @Lawyer_Chen_Xiaodou wrote. “But there is no need to go claiming that this behavior is harmless and spontaneous.”
“It shouldn’t be banned, but it shouldn’t be promoted, either,” wrote @Sima_3_shun. “It’s a group psychological disorder, and this abnormal behavior is how it expresses itself.”
But user @resident_of_planet_714 retorted: “Those of you who spend your whole time online should try being [locked inside] a university campus for three years and see how you like it.”
Unconfirmed reports were also circulating on social media saying that officials at the East China Normal University took photos of a student crawling alone on campus, and dispatched a couple of security guards to the sports field.
Another post said students who organized crawling activities at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications were reported by Communist Party Youth League officials, and hauled in to “drink tea,” a euphemism for being questioned by the authorities.
The Communication University of China in September deleted a post containing patterns for students to cut cardboard “pets” for themselves out of boxes used for deliveries, prompting suspicions that the authorities had banned promotion of the practice.
“Cats and dogs made of discarded cardboard boxes have become popular in colleges and universities across the country, with … Generation Z college students tying up their ‘carton dogs’ outside the doors of dorms, or ‘walking the dog’ on the athletics field,” a recent Weibo post from The Paper said of the phenomenon.
It cited experts as saying the hobby revealed something about the mental state of college students.
A blogger who uses the handle @Surfing_Voice said even extremely passive forms of protest are subject to punishment by the authorities.
“The absurd behavior of students is typical of the times we live in, yet even harmless and passive resistance like this will be punished and criticized by the universities,” the blogger said.
“Why do college students live such restricted lives? They spent 10 years getting ready 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 down the government and opposing corruption, about discussing social issues — college students these days look [caged] by comparison.”
U.S.-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 precipitate [mental] collapse.”
“I can’t condemn the Communist Party enough for their evil actions, driving a cohort of young students crazy,” he said, in a reference to the zero-COVID policy that has seen strict lockdowns imposed on university students, but not university staff or officials.
“It’s not even resistance now, this behavior of college students … This generation of young people in China has been brainwashed to the point where they … daren’t resist and have no sense of social responsibility,” Zang said.