Fallout as Peking University tries to silence student

A student at Peking University, China’s top institution, has been allowed to return to the campus after being barred for days for asking questions about campus sexual harassment and rape cases dating back to the 1990s.

Yue Xin, a student at the School of Foreign Languages at Peking University (PKU), together with seven other students, had lodged a freedom of information request to the university on Shen Yang, a former PKU professor accused of sexual misconduct while at PKU in the 1990s. One victim Gao Yan, who studied under Shen at PKU at the time was, according to her friends, driven to suicide after he raped her.

However, the university’s response was to bar Yue from the campus. University Communist Party officials pressured her family members to keep her at home in virtual house arrest.

“I am currently confined at home and have lost my freedom,” Yue wrote on social media earlier in the week before she was allowed to return to PKU. “I beg every student to help me in any way, clarify the facts and clear my name.”

The case shed light on the role of campus authorities and party officials in stemming free speech and silencing dissenting voices at universities but also sparked widespread support for the student, with a level of campus dissent unseen for decades in Beijing.

At least seven other PKU students who jointly submitted the information request also faced “weeks of intimidation and surveillance” by university administrators threatening to prevent their graduation, according to student accounts shared through the messaging app WeChat.

Yue wrote an open letter on 23 April describing how Peking University authorities hounded her and her family after she took part in a freedom of information application to Peking University on 9 April on the 1998 rape case.

“Since 9 April I have been in constant discussions with the teachers and leadership at the university’s Office of Student Affairs, twice continuing until one or two in the morning. In the course of these talks, the Office has repeatedly brought up ‘whether you can successfully graduate’,” Yue wrote in her letter in Chinese.

Similar claims of intimidation were made by students about another student, Deng Yuhao, who was also ordered to meet PKU officials at midnight. Friends said ‘negotiations’ lasted almost four hours before he was allowed to leave.

Removed from the university

According to Yue, a PKU official accompanied by her mother stormed into the university dorm after midnight on 22 April and took her home. “When the school contacted my mother, they distorted facts and used fabricated allegations to scare my mother. She almost had a mental breakdown,” Yue wrote.

“Why should I feel guilty for requesting transparency of information? I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t regret submitting the petition. I am just claiming my rights as a PKU student,” she wrote.

The school official who took Yue’s mother to the school later denied the student’s accusation of intentional interference, via a post on the school’s internal internet server, and said she had acted out of pure concern for Yue’s safety.

In a post last Monday, the School of Foreign Languages additionally said that Yue’s mother had been summoned out of concern because Yue could not be reached. “We always honour every student’s fundamental rights and make great effort to protect each and every student’s lawful rights,” the school said.

Yue said she had received a response from the School of Foreign Languages two days before, on 20 April, read out by the school’s Party committee secretary, that there were few records of the Shen case.

The accused professor was only lightly fined at the time but was this month fired from his positions at Nanjing University and Shanghai Normal University, according to a Reuters report.

A ‘political movement’

Clues to the university’s heavy-handed approach to the students surfaced last week when the university’s Party committee described the incident as “similar to student activism” and a “political movement”. “Some students are colluding with each other and some are colluding with external forces,” the Party committee said.

The university had sought to curb the spread of protests on campus. One PKU student interrogated by university officials said: “They wanted to know if I’d been organising with others.” Others have had their parents contacted by the university.

But the way Yue was treated over what is seen as a legitimate request for information unleashed anger at how many Chinese universities have turned a blind eye to reports of sexual harassment.

Some described the atmosphere on campus as “tense”, in particular because it occurred in the run-up to the university’s 120-year celebrations, and the university was keen to showcase the institution, with large numbers of official events planned on campus.

Despite censorship, including anything with Yue’s name, and astonishingly anything containing ‘Peking University’, people monitoring Weibo said the interest in events at PKU had wide resonance, with perhaps “hundreds of thousands” of posts on the topic deleted. One deleted post noted that “this fight is not limited to PKU student Yue”.

One post, since censored, picked up by Chinese social media monitoring groups, read: “People are reacting furiously to such a ‘minor issue’ at Beida (as PKU is known in Chinese) because Yue belongs to a group of good-minded young people who have force and hope and want to make this society a better place. They should have been cherished and praised, but now they are strongly rejected by people in power.”

Reacting against online censorships, students erected ‘big character posters’ on campus, a major form of campus protest in the past that has rarely been seen in the internet era.

Common during China’s Cultural Revolution, such posters with information and slogans were widely used on the Peking University campus and other universities in Beijing during the 1989 student-led Tiananmen uprising.

Though later torn down, one poster at PKU last week, which was shown in photographs circulating on the internet, read: “We are anonymous PKU students who deeply admire Yue’s courage and her moral rectitude. We want to ask the PKU student administrators, what are you afraid of?”

PKU response

Seeking to dampen the uproar, PKU has said in recent days it will do more to prevent sexual harassment, and that it had “zero tolerance” for violations of students’ rights.

“The university follows the principle of fairness and justice and safeguards the personal dignity and legal rights of every teacher and student employee. The school will promote the construction of [an] anti-sexual harassment system and conduct anti-sexual harassment propaganda and education for teachers and students to jointly create a safe, harmonious, gender-equality campus environment,” it said in a statement on its website last week.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the media blackout of the case, the Communist Party official organ, the People’s Daily, last week carried a commentary in which the historical sexual harassment case was mentioned. It referred obliquely to the PKU students’ request to the university for information and said points mentioned in the letter await “further confirmation”.

But in what is seen by many as a conciliatory tone, it added, “the critical point raised by the case is how Chinese universities handle requests from students in a proper way”. Noting that young people nowadays have a “strong sense of rights, law and social responsibility”, it said they were capable of holding a “more independent view of the world” than previous generations.