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‘What Exactly Do You Fear?’: Students Test Limits of #MeToo in China

BEIJING — Students and professors in China denounced a leading university on Tuesday for trying to silence activism about sexual harassment, a rare act of defiance that is testing the limits of the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement.

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IRIS ZHAO, New York Times

BEIJING — Students and professors in China denounced a leading university on Tuesday for trying to silence activism about sexual harassment, a rare act of defiance that is testing the limits of the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement.

The institution, Peking University in Beijing, remains in an uproar after a student activist said an instructor accompanied by the student’s mother had visited her dormitory at 1 a.m. Monday to warn her against continuing to speak out about a 20-year-old rape case that had embarrassed the university.

In a letter that was widely shared online, the activist, Yue Xin, said the university had frightened her mother so much that she had threatened to kill herself.

The backlash against the university was swift and fierce. In an unusually bold move, a group of students posted banners accusing the institution of betraying its values, saying Yue was upholding the spirit of the May 4 movement of 1919, a patriotic uprising led by students.

“What exactly do you fear?” asked the banners, titled “In Solidarity with Our Brave Yue Xin.” They were quickly taken down, and Yue’s letter and name were censored on Chinese social media.

The debate has pitted students and professors against a government that appears increasingly intolerant of dissent. President Xi Jinping, who rose to power in 2012, has discouraged the propagation of Western influence at universities and has urged stricter oversight of classes and professors.

As the #MeToo movement has spread on Chinese campuses, officials have reacted cautiously, with some describing it as a foreign campaign with no place in China. Still, students have continued to call for better protections against harassment and assault, and many have taken to social media to report cases of misbehavior involving professors.

On Tuesday, students continued to share Yue’s letter online, with some using the public ledger underlying bitcoin transactions to evade censorship.

In the letter, Yue spoke about her attempts, along with those of seven other students, to press the university to release records pertaining to a 1998 assault case involving professor Shen Yang. A student at the time, Gao Yan, told friends and relatives that she had been raped by Shen. She killed herself soon after.

The case drew wide attention this month when friends of Gao, inspired by the #MeToo movement, posted remembrances online. As millions learned of Gao’s story and anger mounted, Peking University revealed that it had given a warning to Shen over suspicion of inappropriate behavior after police investigated the case in 1998.

Shen, now a professor at another Chinese university, has denied the accusations.

Yue said in her letter that administrators had threatened to block her graduation and had forced her to delete documents related to her investigation of the 1998 case.

Peking University’s heavy-handed attempts to silence discussion of the case drew widespread rebuke this week.

Some students vowed to boycott the university’s 120th anniversary celebration in May with the hashtag #NotMyAnniversary.

“Most people are just shocked and confused,” said one student, who gave his name as Martin Shi. “The political atmosphere is getting tense both inside and outside campus.”

Yuan Zeng, a 2006 graduate of the university, said its efforts to block discussion of sexual harassment were “stupid and outrageous.”

“I’m happy to see students like Yue Xin are courageously fighting for what they believe is right,” said Zeng, now a media scholar in Hong Kong.

Peking University did not answer calls seeking comment Tuesday. A statement Monday by the foreign languages school, where Yue is a student, said the university “respects the basic rights of each student.”

As outrage over the treatment of Yue has grown, commentators have urged the university to work toward reconciliation.

People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main newspaper, published an online commentary Tuesday saying that “schools and students are not antagonists,” and adding that universities should seek to better understand the thoughts and actions of young people.

He Weifang, an outspoken law professor at Peking University, said many faculty members were upset by the university’s treatment of Yue, a senior who has campaigned against discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

Several other students at the university who have pushed for greater transparency in sexual harassment cases have also reported being intimidated by administrators.

He said Peking University, as one of China’s most prestigious institutions, had an obligation to be truthful and transparent.

“The students’ demands for truth show they are socially responsible,” he said. “The university should apologize for not only what happened years ago but also what happened just now.”

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