Backlash sparked over pressure to stop China student #MeToo

BEIJING — Before Yue Xin became a central figure in China's burgeoning movement against sexual harassment, she recorded herself singing a revamped version of the 1960s pop classic "Que Sera Sera."

"Will we be equal? Will we be free?" sang the Peking University senior in a voice clip posted online, putting her own spin on Doris Day's "Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?"

Now these words and Yue's writings on privilege and self-expression have become rallying cries for students expressing rare public outrage over the elite institution's efforts to quiet her exposure of a decades-old rape case. The vocal backlash, including an online petition launched Wednesday, is being regarded as a pivotal moment in China's nascent #MeToo movement.

Yue and seven other students at Peking University formally requested that Peking University disclose its actions in the investigation of sexual misconduct by Shen Yang, a former professor, against Gao Yan, a student who killed herself in 1998 after telling friends that Shen raped her.

Shen no longer works at Peking University and was dismissed from posts at Nanjing University and Shanghai Normal University earlier this month.

According to a letter from Yue that was widely circulated online, Peking University has threatened and intimidated her and her parents in an attempt to stifle discussion of the matter. Yue posted a plea on her WeChat messaging account Monday saying that she had been taken away from her dormitory in the middle of the night by her distraught mother and a university instructor.

"I'm confined to (my parents') house right now," Yue wrote. "I've lost my freedom."

Yue did not respond to requests for comment, and friends said they have been unable to reach her.

Peking University's Foreign Languages School, the department to which Yue belongs, said in a statement Monday that they brought Yue's mother to campus "out of concern" that the student had not responded to messages for hours.

The university did not respond to further requests for comment.

Underscoring the degree of attention attracted by Yue's case, People's Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, took the rare step of issuing a call for reconciliation between students and the university and for "young people's voices" to be understood.

"Students and faculty together comprise the university's fate," the paper said in a commentary Tuesday. "The school must accept constructive suggestions in a timely manner ... and not be evasive."

"Students have already developed an awareness of their rights that is impossible to crush," said Feng Yuan, a prominent women's rights advocate. "The fight for women's rights will only become more defiant with every setback."

While China is beginning to confront problems of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, any kind of campus activism is extremely sensitive for a ruling party with vivid memories of the 1989 student-led pro-democracy demonstrations centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The movement was crushed by the military and Chinese college campuses have since been among the most closely monitored venues for organization and discussion.

Posts about Yue and Shen's case have been heavily censored. The term "Yue Xin" was not searchable on the Twitter-like Weibo platform Wednesday, and posts related to her situation have been scrubbed from WeChat — prompting jokes that a "404 Error" symbol should become Peking University's new logo.

Despite such measures, students have been vocalizing their discontent. Big-character posters — sheets featuring large, handwritten Chinese characters reminiscent of past protest movements — appeared near the historic Democracy Wall triangle on campus, where students advocated political reform in the 1980s.

"We ask you gentlemen in charge of the school: What are you actually afraid of?" the posters said, asserting that Yue was acting in the spirit of the May Fourth movement, when thousands of students from Peking University, also known as PKU, marched to Tiananmen Square in 1919 to protest the government's response to the Treaty of Versailles.

A petition published online Wednesday, said to be signed by students and alumni, condemned the school's "unjust" treatment of Yue and other students who raised Shen's case, demanding that pressure on them be lifted.

On social media, users expressed disappointment in "what PKU has become" and shared a school photo of Yue with the caption "PKU's soul is not dead."

Fang Kecheng, a journalist and Weibo commentator, described Yue in a blog post as someone who approaches everything with great attention to detail, carefully observing the world around her and meticulously analyzing problems.

Yue is "one of those rare PKU students," wrote Fang, an alumnus. She is among the students who offer "a beacon in the dark night, encouraging generations to come."

According to Fang, Yue gave sex education classes to children in poor areas and wanted to be a journalist.

In an essay published on her public WeChat account, Yue ruminated on social inequality in China and her own privilege.

"What I bear is the original sin of the structural injustices of this whole society," Yue wrote. "I truly have no reason to not move forward; I truly have no reason to move forward only for my sake."

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Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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