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2018-11-14 12:14:32

A university in southern China said a plan to “thoroughly check” students’ electronic devices for illegal content was yet “to be finalized” after the announcement faced backlash online, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported Tuesday.

Guilin University of Electronic Technology in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region had issued a campus-wide notice that it would inspect devices — such as cellphones, computers, external hard drives, and USB flash drives — belonging to its students and staff members, according to a document anonymously posted online Tuesday. An official at the school’s Party and Administration Office confirmed the authenticity of the document to The Paper, while another employee in charge of approving the notice said some of its contents were still under discussion and yet “to be finalized.”

“The scale of the inspection might be narrowed down, considering that checking students’ phones is related to their privacy,” the employee told The Paper.

The undated notice from the school said that the inspection planned for Nov. 7–23 was intended to crack down on content related to violence, terrorism, pornography, and subversion of state power. “Recently, hostile forces outside the country have been wantonly disseminating illegal videos and images via the internet, mobile phones, and other means,” the document said.

After the notice was shared online, netizens slammed the school for invading people’s privacy under the guise of combating nefarious foreign influence. “Which line in the law explicitly gives school officials the right to violate students’ privacy?” said one user in a comment on the microblogging platform Weibo. “They have even more power than the courts!” wrote another.

According to the Chinese constitution, the freedom and confidentiality of citizens’ communications are protected by law. Only police and prosecutors have the authority to check the contents of people’s communications in cases related to serious crimes, such as those pertaining to national security.

In September, two major news programs on state broadcaster China Central Television reported on several cases in which mainland students studying in Taiwan were tricked into providing national security information to spies with the island’s government. The reports were intended to warn university students who might be targeted for similar espionage activities. In 2016, Chinese authorities also publicized a comic strip cautioning female government employees about dating handsome foreign men who could be spies.

With the internet now an essential part of daily life for most Chinese, there have been growing concerns in the country about privacy in the virtual world. China’s largest messaging app, WeChat, has long been prying into people’s supposedly private chats and deleting anything deemed politically sensitive, according to The Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto. Though the platform says it will not share user information with third parties in most instances, it admits that it will hand data over to authorities when required by law.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: College students study in a classroom in Qingdao, Shandong province, April 22, 2014. VCG)