Universities involved in crackdown on student activism

Students from China’s top universities are among a dozen being held after a series of coordinated raids carried out during 9 to 11 November by security officials in a number of major cities to quash a student support of labour rights in China. But the increasing role of universities in the repression of activist students is also causing concern.

According to reports at the weekend, Chinese security officials took away at least nine students in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen last Friday – including at least five students or recent graduates of Peking University – the country’s top institution. Three more were taken away on Sunday in the city of Wuhan, ostensibly for supporting factory workers protesting for better working conditions.

“Over a dozen young activists who took part in a national campaign for workers’ rights in China are missing, in what appeared to be an effort by the government to silence one of the most visible student protests in years,” said Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) – a Hong Kong-based group in support of workers’ rights.

Students had been supporting a workers’ campaign at the Jasic machinery plant in southern China to set up a labour union.

The Jasic Workers Solidarity group claimed in a statement issued on Friday that a recent Peking University graduate, Zhang Shengye, was “kidnapped” from the university’s Beijing campus on 9 November as part of the coordinated raids.

Zhang was beaten by unidentified men, according to student witnesses and a video circulating online, and was dragged into a car. Student witnesses were also beaten.

"Peking University acquiesced to the kidnapping – this is another crime universities have committed against progressive students and the left-wing community," said the Jasic group, referring to campus-based Marxist groups who have spoken out for workers’ rights. Peking University’s administration had earlier moved to shut down the campus student Marxist society, which had been conducting investigations into the rights of workers on the university’s campus.

A Peking University spokesperson said on Monday 12 November that “non-campus affiliated persons suspected of committing a crime” had been seized by public security organs “in accordance with law” but said the incident did not involve students or teachers.

“Information is still sketchy, but it looks like China’s pre-eminent institution of higher education is implicated in the physical assault and kidnapping of its own student,” tweeted Eli Friedman, associate professor at Cornell University specialising in China’s labour politics.

Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations at the end of October suspended two exchange programmes with Renmin University of China in Beijing over the latter institution’s repression and excessive punishment of its students who support the labour movement. Under the arrangement, 10 Cornell students a year went to Renmin and vice versa.

“With this kind of student-worker alliance it is no longer seen as a worker conflict or a campus-based issue, it is seen as a security issue,” Friedman told University World News, adding that the last time students and workers formed this kind of alliance was in 1989, which led to the Tiananmen massacre. “The authorities are clearly anxious,” he said.

Aftermath of August raids

At Peking University, Zhang had been leading the search for activists detained after some 50 students from different universities across China converged in the southern province of Guangdong in support of Jasic workers on 6 August.

On 24 August riot police raided an apartment in the southern city of Huizhou and took away some 50 activist students and recent graduates. At least four are still in custody facing prosecution while another four appear to be in detention at an unknown location, other activists said. Others had been held under house arrest and monitored by the authorities.

Before that, on 27 July, some 30 supporters, students and workers were arrested in Shenzhen after they staged protests at the Jasic factory.

Geoffrey Crothall, communications director of Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, told University World News the Huizhou raid in August was on a specific location, however “this weekend’s raids seems to have been a more targeted crackdown on individuals at different locations. Between 10 and 20 people have disappeared or been detained in this latest crackdown,” Crothall said.

According to Crothall, it seems the authorities “are getting a bit desperate to put a lid on this. I seriously doubt it will be effective because the authorities have failed to deal with the fundamental issues which gave rise to these protests in the first place.” These go back to workers suffering poor pay and working conditions and wanting to form a workers’ union.

The workers picked up in July “are being held in police custody awaiting trial”, but it is unclear where the student supporters are, Crothall said. “Generally, the students have been held under some kind of house arrest or unofficial supervision. They are not formally detained.”

Cornell’s Friedman notes only the workers face legal charges, while recent graduates were being held across the country sometimes incommunicado, and essentially disappeared. “But for the students still enrolled in universities, it became the university’s responsibility to manage them.”

University role

“The university’s job is to ensure this kind of thing does not happen again and that the students get the message. So the universities are taking previously unprecedented steps” such as shutting down Marxist societies which support workers’ rights, Friedman said.

The students held in July and August were released back to the universities so that they could establish the extent of the national network, Friedman believes. “By sending students back to campus they can see who else those students are interacting with and use that to more effectively map out the network of left-wing students that has emerged.”

“Now that the network has been mapped out, we are seeing the second wave where they are cracking down quite hard on students.”

These included crackdowns at Renmin University in October and early November and Nanjing University where, on 2 November, students were allegedly assaulted and hauled away after they led protests against the university for its refusal to recognise an on-campus Marxist student society.

“Very similar actions were being taken on all of these campuses around the same time,” says Friedman. “It is quite clear it is a nationally coordinated crackdown and Renmin, Peking and Nanjing are enforcing orders from above.”

“But even in instances where the university itself is not directing the crackdown, it is being complicit with state security,” Friedman said. He noted that in the incident at Peking University it was clear that the university authorities did not allow campus police to intervene to stop the ‘kidnapping’ of Zhang from the campus.

“It is a kind of complicity by the university and willingness to be involved in these kinds of extra-legal forms of violence and detention that definitely suggests a ramping up from a few years ago,” Friedman said.

Implications for international collaboration

“The issue of universities enforcing [student crackdowns] is critical in terms of foreign universities’ collaboration,” Friedman adds. “It suggests a different fundamental set of principles by which these institutions are operating. Without that shared basis of values, it presents all kinds of questions in terms of how we cooperate.”

Friedman noted that Renmin University had taken steps to prevent students from going to Guangdong province in support of the labour protests. One Renmin student in Beijing, Zhang Zihan, had not been to Shenzhen but had been posting material in Beijing in support of the workers. “She was brought in and threatened and told to delete her posts and told to unlock her phone so that they could go through her phone,” he said.

Zhang Zihan said in an online blog at the end of August that she soon realised the true intention of the university “is not aimed at me alone but at all the students who are concerned about and support the Jasic workers”.

But Friedman underlines the divisions between the party authorities and academics on campuses. “In my interactions with Renmin, it became clear that the party organisation is handling this. When I began to express concerns to Renmin about what was happening to my faculty counterparts there, I was quickly turned over to someone who represents the official party structure and the language very quickly became formal and the party line.”

Faculty at the university “are quite distraught by what is happening, but there is nothing they can say or do right now”, he said.

Ending the collaboration with Renmin

For Cornell University, ending the collaboration with Renmin “was not the only option but was the only thing that was left to us after we had exhausted other channels”, Friedman explained.

“The thing that for me made me feel that doing nothing was not an option was the case of Yan Zuhan at Renmin who did go to Shenzhen. She went to her parents’ home in Kunming and was being followed and surveilled the whole time by local security agents. When she tried to return to Beijing to go back to Renmin, she was accosted at the train station by plain clothes officers and told she was not going to be allowed to board the train. And against her will she was transported back to her parents’ home and essentially put under extra-legal detention.”

She was presented with a document to sign promising not to participate in political activities and to stop talking and posting about such issues. “If she failed to sign the document they said she was going to be suspended for one year,” Friedman said.

“We don’t know who gave the order for her to be detained and moved against her will, the university may or may not have done it, but they were simply complicit and were taking advantage of the fact that she was being held against her will and threatening her with detention despite the fact she had not violated any laws.”

“That to me was a turning point, something I had not seen before, although I had seen all kinds of suppression of free speech in China. That was a new level of concern and something had to be done,” Friedman said.

Photo credit: Hong Kong Free Press