A rare protest against Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his policies: two banners on an overpass in Beijing. Photo from Twitter

Always under surveillance

A Chinese student is never safe

A rare protest against Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his policies: two banners on an overpass in Beijing. Photo from Twitter
Anonymous Chinese students recently put up posters in the Harmony building, criticising the Chinese government. A huge step for those who are constantly afraid of being caught making ‘inappropriate comments’. ‘I can feel the risk of being watched and reported.’
2 November om 9:56 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 2 November 2022
om 9:57 uur.
November 2 at 9:56 AM.
Last modified on November 2, 2022
at 9:57 AM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

2 November om 9:56 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 2 November 2022
om 9:57 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

November 2 at 9:56 AM.
Last modified on November 2, 2022
at 9:57 AM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

‘Say no to covid tests. Yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom.’

‘Dethrone dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping.’

‘Do not be an accomplice to a dictator. Be an upstanding citizen.’

Posters criticising the policy of the Chinese government recently appeared in the Harmony building and other parts of Groningen. They may not look like much – a simple A4 print, with hardly any colours – but for Chinese students, putting up a poster like that is huge.

Because even while studying thousands of miles away from home, it’s still not safe for them to say how they feel about politics, sexuality, or Covid19. Government monitoring can be everywhere and the whispered threat is constant: behave, or there will be consequences.

And the consequences are real, says PhD student Zeng. ‘A few months ago, someone I know returned to China after finishing his PhD in the UK. He was taken away right after landing, and detained for investigation. They told him that it was quarantine, but his devices were confiscated to check for evidence of “inappropriate comments” abroad. These are the consequences I’m worried about.’


Those posters in the Harmony building show support for a recent event in Beijing, where a man hung banners demanding changes in the harsh policies. He also called for the removal of Chinese president Xi Jinping. The protest was immediately suppressed, but received worldwide news coverage and sympathy. 

We’ve gotten too used to censoring our own language

Now, similar posters have appeared at universities worldwide and any Chinese student can tell you they are way beyond ‘inappropriate’. Still, some of them have told UKrant that they support them, even though they can’t publicly say so. As political dissidents, they might be reported by their peers.

‘I’ve heard people commenting that this is useless’, says UG student Li. ‘However, we don’t do things only because they are useful, but also because they are right. The protester in Beijing was brave and so are the people who followed up.’ 

Li remembers how shocked he was when he heard about the protest. ‘He said in very plain language what we’ve been trying to say for a long time. But we’ve gotten too used to censoring our own language.’

A few of the posters that recently appeared in the Harmony building and other parts of Groningen


Before coming to the Netherlands, Li, too, got in trouble because of surveillance from others. He was reported by an acquaintance because of a post on social media and was then interrogated at a police station. ‘I was crying’, he says. ‘It was just a review on Facebook about a play. Although the play was somewhat political, I expressed my love for it’, he says. ‘They demanded I sign a pledge I’d never do it again, and I found a thick pile of signed papers on the table – which meant a lot of people had already signed something similar before me.’

Interrogations like these are usually not followed by criminal charges, but only aim to threaten people who may cause ‘social instability’. They are jokingly referred to as ‘drinking tea’ by the young generation in China. However, the experience frustrated Li and made him careful: ‘I can guess who reported me.’

And even though he now lives in Groningen, the surveillance hasn’t stopped. Last week, Dutch news media RTL Nieuws and Follow the Money reported that the Chinese government has at least two illegal police stations that they use to pressurise critical Chinese citizens. And in 2020, Dutch research institute Clingendael warned that Chinese students are often monitored by fellow students and the embassy. ‘Whether on social media or in private conversations, I can feel the risk of being watched and reported’, Li says. ‘I’m always careful about choosing people to talk to.’


26-year old UG student Meng avoids interacting with Chinese government supporters altogether, if she can. ‘These Pinkies are way too sensitive’, she says, using the nickname for young Chinese Communist Party supporters. ‘They are always very aggressive and feel they represent the side of justice.’

I’m always careful about choosing people to talk to

She is also careful when talking to people she doesn’t know well. And when she participated in a protest in Amsterdam this summer, remembering the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square that cost hundreds of lives and left thousands wounded when the Chinese government opened fire on protesters, she wore a mask and disguised herself in cheap clothes. ‘There were Chinese people there who kept taking pictures of us with their mobile phones’, she remembers. ‘When the protest was over, my companion and I walked to a place where no one was around. We changed our clothes and threw the outfit we had on in a trash bin.’

She is afraid of having any public discussion on politics. ‘I don’t feel safe’, she says. ‘I’ve heard often enough about people suffering the consequences. The government might not be able to do anything to you directly, but they can threaten your family.’


Chat histories on WeChat and posts on social media can be used as evidence. Phones might be bugged. ‘I bought a new phone here and registered new accounts for it. That way I might not be secretly recorded as easily’, Meng says. ‘But it might also not make a difference.’

‘When one of my friends mentioned the recent political changes in China on a WeChat call, the call was immediately terminated’, Zeng shares. ‘No one knows why, but it was scary.’

Li is always vigilant in what message he shares with whom. He doesn’t befriend people on social media who might be dangerous, and his contacts are split into different sections. ‘On my WeChat, some people are in the “not my acquaintance” group, some in the “potential Red Guards” group.’ When I post something about politics, I make the message visible to only a select group.’

A friend mentioned politics on a WeChat call and it was immediately terminated

The students don’t know who put up the posters at the UG. However, they are concerned about the consequences for whoever did. At a Dutch university in Wageningen, a fellow Chinese student tore down protest posters and claimed that both university and municipality were helping him to track down the person who put them up. And even though both university and municipality denied the claim, things like that get Chinese students on edge. 

‘It made me think of the recent protest I attended in support of the women of Iran – I watched people speak publicly and felt a great sense of admiration. They spoke out openly, even though they were also facing danger from their homeland, just like us’, Li says. 

And it has them considering their own future, especially after the total knockout of potential reformists at the recent National Party Congress. ‘The morning the congress ended, I checked my phone and saw a message from a friend in the group chat’, Zeng says. He reads the message aloud: ‘Don’t go back. It’s all over. There is no tomorrow, no future.’

The names of the students in this article are aliases.