An open letter accusing China’s top university of silencing a student activist protesting sexual harassment has drawn outrage at the school and support for the student on Chinese social media, even as censors work to scrub clean of posts on the story.
Yue Xin, a senior at Peking University (PKU), wrote and posted the letter on Monday, detailing the school’s efforts to shut down a petition filed by her and seven other students aimed at exposing a two-decades-old alleged rape-suicide case involving a former professor.
She described school officials’ persistent attempts to talk her out of the petition, eventually enlisting her mother to visit her dorm room on Sunday and forcibly take her home.
“Peking University’s unjustifiable interference disrupted the relationship between my mother and me,” she wrote in the letter that she posted on a public WeChat account.
“When I saw my mother crying, slapping her face, falling on her knees, and threatening to end her life, my heart was bleeding,” she said, adding that her school counselor stormed into her dorm with her mother.
Although Yue’s letter was quickly censored on social media, it has already attracted widespread public attention and prompted a massive backlash against Peking University, often called “China’s Harvard.”
Many have questioned why a prestigious school, especially one with a rich history of student activism – from 1919’s May 4 youth movement to the 1989 pro-democracy movement – has gone to such great lengths to suppress a student’s call for justice.
The School of Foreign Languages at Peking University, where Yue is enrolled, said the counselor contacted her mother out of concern for Yue’s safety after failing to reach her, the school said, according to a statement on its official website.
It said both the school and the teachers were well-intended and the school “will respect every student’s basic rights and work hard to safeguard every student’s legitimate rights.”
’I didn’t do anything wrong’
Yue said in the letter that her school counselor also ordered her to delete “everything related to the information disclosure request from her cell phone and laptop” and hand in a written guarantee promising to drop the petition the next day.
“My mom and I couldn’t sleep all night. My mother was scared by the distorted facts and fabricated allegations when the school contacted her. She almost had a mental breakdown.”
Despite feeling “disturbed and stressed out,” Yue didn’t back down. She returned home at her mother’s insistence, but said she felt the urge to speak out.
“Why should I feel guilty for requesting information transparency? I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t regret submitting the petition. I am just claiming my honorable rights as a PKU student,” she wrote.
Yue did not respond to CNN when contacted via social media.
Censorship and social backlash
Censors banned the shorthand characters used for PKU, but some internet users were able to share the letter by covert methods, including archiving the story with unalterable blockchain technology and spreading the word with flipped screenshots.
Others used a more direct – and traditional – way to show their support.
“We are anonymous PKU students who deeply admire Yue’s courage and her moral rectitude. We want to ask the PKU administrators: what are you afraid of?” asked the authors on a notice posted on one of the university’s main bulletin boards Monday, titled “In Solidarity with Our Brave Yue Xin.”
“It has been a struggle between two PKUs, one whose values and ideals we hold dear, the other a corrupt, malignant institution you so proudly champion,” the poster said.
Old case resurfaces
Yue said she is one of eight petitioners who demanded information and transparency on a sexual harassment investigation into a PKU literature professor whose student committed suicide 20 years ago.
The case, which had previously received no publicity, resurfaced recently as the #metoo movement went global and provoked heated discussion in China.
Widely shared online posts allege that the literature professor, who was then 43 and has since left PKU, made unwanted sexual advances on a 19-year-old female student and later spread rumors about her personality to discredit her claim. The student committed suicide in 1998.
An official document from the time released by the university on April 8 concluded that the professor “had improper interactions with the female student,” including acts of kissing and hugging, but failed to define his behavior as sexual harassment.
He received a formal warning but was cleared of responsibility for the student’s suicide and was allowed to continue teaching.
Although the #metoo movement against sexual harassment has yet to gain much traction in Chinese society, the issue has galvanized college campuses – with student activists like Yue playing a leading role in raising public awareness and advocating policy change.
Around 70% of college students and graduates reported they had been sexually harassed, according to an 2017 online survey that received around 7,000 responses.
In a nod to the anger at the country’s most prestigious university, the People’s Daily – the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece – published commentary Tuesday, suggesting school officials “upgrade” their ways of dealing with student concerns.
“(Today’s students) have a very strong sense of their rights, the rule of law and social responsibilities – and they are more capable than any previous generations in observing the world independently,” it said. “Schools can’t just hide and evade because of various factors – or seek simplistic resolutions.”