The Price of Saying ‘Me Too’ in China

The entrance gate to the campus of Peking University in Beijing.CreditRoman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock
The entrance gate to the campus of Peking University in Beijing.CreditRoman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock

The central space known as the Triangle at Peking University is a historically important spot. During the Cultural Revolution, the Triangle was where staff members and students mounted “big character” propaganda posters criticizing university administrators as rightists. And it was there in April 1989 that students met to mourn the death of the reformist leader of Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, a gathering that would eventually snowball into the country’s most famous student protests.

So it was significant when posters began showing up on the bulletin board in the Triangle showing solidarity with a Peking University student named Yue Xin.

Ms. Yue was one of eight students who petitioned university officials last month to call for transparency in the investigation of a 20-year-old rape case in which the victim, a 21-year-old student, committed suicide. The man accused of assaulting her was a Peking University literature professor.

In the weeks following the petition, Ms. Yue says, she and her friends were subjected to an array of intimidation tactics from university administrators, including a late-night visit to her dormitory during which she was forced to delete all information about the case from her phone and computer. Officials also leaned on her mother to pressure Ms. Yue to back off.

“When I saw my mother crying, slapping her face, falling on her knees, and threatening to end her life, my heart was bleeding,” Ms. Yue wrote in an online post that was widely shared before officials censored it. The university also threatened to not let her graduate.

Last fall, when the sexual harassment and assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein got worldwide attention, China was — at first, at least — conspicuously quiet. Some Chinese even took the opportunity to boast. An opinion essay in the state-owned newspaper China Daily declared that the lack of similar accusations here reflected cultural differences: “Chinese men are taught to be protective of their women,” it claimed.

But it didn’t take long for Chinese women to begin to speak up, to circulate petitions demanding investigations or to write about their experiences on social media — which is when the similarities to the “Me Too” movement elsewhere ended, and the censorship began. Social media platforms blocked references to sexual harassment; online petitions were deleted. Similarly, what Ms. Yue and her friends did may have contained echoes of, or been inspired by, the worldwide awakening against abuse of women at the hands of the powerful, but what she has experienced since is particular to China.

Ms. Yue is hardly the first feminist to make the authorities nervous. In May 2017, a few months before Me Too became a hashtag, several social media users identifying themselves as Beijing Film Academy students wrote that a fellow student had been sexually abused by a professor; the posts were later censored and the users’ accounts removed. Three years ago, five women were famously detained for weeks for planning activities aimed to raise awareness of sexual assaults on public transportation in Beijing.

Battling sexual harassment and exploitation in China has long involved very real dangers. It means engaging in organizing and other activities that a regime that has sought to crack down on civil society doesn’t like. It also means raising questions of whether those with power in China regularly take advantage of those without — a deeply sensitive subject in a country where corruption runs rampant.

As a message circulating among some Peking University student chat groups in recent weeks about Ms. Yue and her petition put it: “The Peking University Party bosses perceive the whole incident as political, involving students organizing and colluding with external forces.” Calling protests the result of foreign ideas has long been a dismissal tactic, but these Communist Party bosses are not wrong about it being political.

University campuses, and Peking University in particular, have often been at the forefront of the democracy movement here, something that has long troubled the Chinese leadership. In May 1919, to protest a provision in the Treaty of Versailles giving Japan control of Chinese territories, Peking University students demonstrated against imperialist exploitation and feudal rule in what would come to be known as the May 4 Movement. Seventy years later, students from universities all over the country once again staged pro-democracy protests, which led to the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown. The Triangle at Peking University campus was the very place where these protests were born.

In the decades that followed Tiananmen, China’s students seemingly went quiet. As economic growth took off, many in the country, students included, embraced a newly cynical motto: Keep your head down and make money. More recently, a growing number of students have embraced ultranationalist, pro-authoritarian views that were indifferent to civil liberties and checks and balances on power.

And so the open display of disobedience in the name of transparency at Peking University may have come as a surprise. “We ask the gentlemen in charge of the school: What are you actually afraid of?” the posters at the Triangle read. Ms. Yue, they said, was acting in the spirit of the May 4 Movement 100 years ago, in which students summoned the courage to question the authorities and administrators protested that they simply wanted to preserve stability.

For now, the parties appear to have reached a sort of détente. Several days after Ms. Yue posted her letter saying she was being harassed, she announced that she had returned to the university. Her demands for transparency in the rape case remain unanswered.

But China’s fledgling Me Too movement continues to achieve unexpected results: The professor accused of rape, Shen Yang, who had moved to positions at Nanjing and Shanghai Normal Universities, was fired; other men in academia have lost their jobs as a result of accusations against them. Can this movement spread beyond campuses? It’s difficult to say in a heavy censorship regime. But it would not be the first time that students started an uprising.

Audrey Jiajia Li, a freelance columnist and filmmaker, was the 2017-2018 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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