Nearly 40,000 people have joined an online debate over whether a college has the right to interfere in public display of affection by students on campus.
It all started with a media report about a unique part-time job that the Nanjing University of Forestry created for its students four years ago. Wearing red armbands as identification, the students patrol the campus, discouraging their schoolmates from spitting, littering, vandalizing school property and stepping on lawns.
But their most controversial assignment is to stop students from displaying "intense intimacy", such as kissing, embracing, or sitting on each other's laps.
The university is proud of its program. Jinling Evening News quotes one school official as saying: "The program not only creates nearly 100 part-time jobs, but also helps to maintain a civilized environment." The campus is "clean", the official said, now that students are encouraged to show some restraint in public.
Not surprisingly, the students see it a bit differently. One student complained that the monitors always appear when she and her boyfriend "just try to sit a bit closer".
Another student, a junior who calls himself Ah Wei, said online that he and his girlfriend no longer meet to talk in the campus garden. "We felt as if there was always a pair of eyes watching us," he wrote.
The student monitors feel torn. They like having a job, but they are afraid of offending their schoolmates. About two-thirds of the online posts appear to favor the monitors; about one-third opposes them.
I certainly understand the students' position. After all, who wants a chaperone hovering around during an intimate moment? College students are adults; they should be responsible for their own actions without being monitored by others.
We Chinese have come a long way in openly expressing our emotions, including affection. Confucius dictated that men and women should observe propriety. Ancient rituals even forbade men and women from touching hands. When I was growing up during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), it took up a lot of courage even to start talking with the boy sitting next to me. In my middle school years, some girls never even looked a boy in the eyes.
In those days of scarcity, young lovers had no privacy whatsoever. They often met in parks to talk and perhaps hold hands. Kissing and embracing in public were simply forbidden. If they were too intimate, they ran the risks of being taken away by police.
A lot of barriers have fallen since China began to open up 30 years ago. Go to any middle school after school and you will see students streaming out of class, boys and girls chatting and laughing together. It is not uncommon to see boys and girls holding hands or even kissing if they think no one is watching. College-age men and women are adults and should enjoy even more freedom.
On the other hand, I do hate to see young people indulging in acts of intimacy in public, oblivious to the feelings of others. A colleague of mine recently found herself crowded at one end of a subway car, while a pair of teens disported themselves at the other end. "All the people around me just tried to pretend the boy and girl weren't there," my friend said.
The Nanjing University of Forestry may have gone too far, but it is their job to teach youngsters to behave in public so as not to offend people's sensibilities.