Sexual harassment and assault

Chinese students push back against Peking University as #MeToo activist accuses college of intimidation 

Outspoken undergraduate says China’s top university is trying to silence her for demanding information about a sexual misconduct case that led to student’s 1998 suicide

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 10:59am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 7:15pm

A public backlash has erupted on social media after a student accused China’s top university of trying to silence her for demanding information about the handling of a sexual misconduct case that led to a star pupil’s suicide 20 years ago. 

Thousands of people vented their anger against the prestigious Peking University this week after Yue Xin, an undergraduate in the School of Foreign Languages, published a letter on Monday denouncing the college for trying to muzzle her by pressuring her family and threatening that she might not be allowed to graduate.  

The backlash even prompted a response from the People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, urging calm on both sides.

A set of three posters was also put up anonymously on campus information boards on Monday night, criticising the university for trying to silence Yue. The posters were removed by campus security within an hour, but photos of it had already gone viral online. 

Yue is an activist in the growing #MeToo movement against sexual harassment on Chinese campuses and in workplaces. 

On April 9, she filed a formal request with the university demanding that it disclose information about its handling of a sexual misconduct case that resulted in the suicide of a student, Gao Yan, 20 years ago. 

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Gao, a star in the university’s Chinese literature department, was 21 when she took her own life in 1998. After her death, her classmates accused one of her professors, Shen Yang, of forcing her to have a sexual relationship with him. 

Shen received a minor administrative punishment and continued to work at the university until he was transferred to another college. 

The case was back in the spotlight this month after two of Gao’s former classmates came forward to accuse Shen of raping Gao. Shen was subsequently fired by two universities, but online criticism has also been directed at Peking University for protecting him. 

In her public letter, Yue said that after her April 9 demand for information, PKU held her for hours-long talks that lasted past midnight and tried to intimidate her by suggesting that she might not be allowed to graduate. 

She said the school misled her mother and stormed her dormitory late on Sunday night, forcing her to return home instead of remaining on campus. 

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The school said in a statement that it had acted out of concern for Yue’s safety after failing to contact her on Sunday night. 

Yue’s letter was widely censored online, sparking angry comments on social media from university students, alumni and others. 

“Why is a lawful application being so widely censored online? Wake up, China is not the country of 50 years ago,” said one person using PKU’s Weibo account. “It makes my heart ache seeing a young girl restrained by reality when fighting for transparency of information.” 

Another wrote: “Wonder why everyone is criticising the university? It is not about someone in PKU having committed a wrongdoing, but how the university handled it … The university should be proud so many PKU students still have the university spirit in them and examine itself.”  

In the wake of the backlash, the state mouthpiece People’s Daily addressed the matter Tuesday on its social media accounts. 

“The university and its students should not be on opposing ends of the matter,” the commentary said, urging the school to “improve its understanding of and communication with the younger generation.” 

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“In resolving the problem at hand, both sides should have more tolerance and patience,” it said. The response also encouraged the students to steer away from radical behaviour and to seek to handle the dispute rationally. 

The phones of the university’s publicity department went unanswered on Tuesday. Yue did not respond to the South China Post’s request for an interview.