Official efforts to gloss over scandals spark co-ordinated campaigns in universities Protest posters on Monday night at Peking University were quickly removed by authorities but circulated on social media


Emily Feng and Yuan Yang in Beijing

APRIL 24, 2018

Official efforts to gloss over sexual assault and harassment scandals have triggered protests by students at some of China’s most prestigious universities, one of the first co-ordinated student campaigns to emerge from China’s tightly controlled academic world since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.  Students are demanding greater transparency over the handling of high-profile sexual assault cases despite facing harsh censorship as the country’s leaders try to quell rising discontent.

Two professors have been dismissed from universities across China as a result of the protests and new evidence from witnesses. This week, a student at Peking University in Beijing who requested more information on a rape-suicide case was placed under effective house arrest after university and Communist party officials put pressure on her parents to confine her to their home. “I am currently confined at home and have lost my freedom,” wrote Yue Xin, the student, on social media. “I beg of every student to help me in any way, clarify the facts and clear my name.”

The manner in which she was spirited away from campus by administrators has unleashed long-simmering anger at how Chinese universities have turned a blind eye to reports of sexual harassment and assault. Nearly a third of university students have been harassed or assaulted by staff or others, according to a 2016 study commissioned by a state family planning organisation.

The student activism also comes despite a prolonged crackdown under president Xi Jinping’s rule on all aspects of civil society. Yet a wave of sexual assault allegations involving Chinese professors has infuriated university students, an anger that has only been exacerbated by intimidation tactics intended to silence them.

That has prompted questions as to whether China’s leaders will continue to use heavy-handed methods to muzzle activists and public discussion. Authorities have been especially sensitive to university protests since troops killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students and other demonstrators around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A letter Ms Yue wrote was quickly censored online but images, which are harder to block, continue to be shared. Supporters have also encrypted an English translation of Ms Yue’s letter in the cryptocurrency Ethereum’s blockchain to preserve a permanent record of her account.  Nine other students who jointly submitted the information request have also undergone weeks of intimidation and surveillance by administrators threatening to prevent their graduation, according to student accounts shared through the messaging app WeChat.

They are asking for the release of investigation materials regarding the 1990s case regarding a former PKU professor alleged to have assaulted and harassed several of his female students. One of them, Gao Yan, was driven to suicide, according to her friends. The professor was only lightly fined at the time but was fired this month from his positions at two other Chinese universities. Earlier this year, more than 45 universities wrote open letters petitioning administrators to implement stricter sexual harassment and assault reporting mechanisms.

Supporters hung handwritten “big character” posters on Monday night on Peking University’s campus condemning university administrators. “Big character” posters were used to denounce political opponents during the Cultural Revolution as well as to demand reforms during a shortlived democracy movement in 1978.  “This has been a struggle between two PKUs, one whose values and ideals we hold dear, the other a corrupt and malignant institution you so proudly champion,” read the posters, which also referenced May Fourth, an influential student movement begun by Beijing university students in 1919.

The posters were quickly taken down by the next morning but images of them were widely shared.  Even while #MeToo movements threaten the careers of senior officials in neighbouring South Korea and Japan, China’s leaders have quickly blocked any sign of protest at home, including jailing feminist activists. The country’s most popular feminist publication, Feminist Voices, had its social media accounts closed this year.

Despite the top-down crackdown on feminism, the Peking incident is one of several sexual harassment cases that have come to light in recent months, some after years of being silenced.  In an unusual move, a court in the city of Qingdao accepted a case this month filed by a female student suing the local police department for allegedly failing to investigate her sexual assault on campus. Police had dismissed her claims as “selfish”, “dishonourable” and “disrespectful to her parents”, the student told the FT.

At Beijing’s Renmin University, an economics professor was placed under investigation this month after students re-circulated previously censored reports of him sexually harassing a female student. More than 40 students protested outside his class before campus security intervened to escort the professor away.  “That [protest] was the first time I have seen something like this at Renmin,” said Jeff Liu, a graduate student who witnessed the protest.

Meanwhile, current and former Peking University students continue to demand greater openness on matters of sexual assault and harassment, with some boycotting the university’s 120th anniversary celebrations this weekend.  “The occurrence of the problem is nothing to be ashamed of,” said Vincy Yin, a Peking University alumnus. “Rather, failing to confront the problem and trying everything to cover things up in a cowardly manner are what would really fail the beliefs our predecessors fought hard for and the Peking University spirit.”  Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing

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