Sat, Sep 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Students target inequality in China

Young rights advocates in China have spoken about the self-interest and materialism they say is prevalent among students at elite universities, but they would rather address growing inequality and other social concerns

By Sue-Lin Wong and Christian Shepherd  /  Reuters, HUIZHOU, China

Illustration: Lance Liu

At 1am on April 23, Yue Xin (岳昕) was rudely awakened in her dormitory at China’s prestigious Peking University by her mother and a faculty adviser.

Yue, emboldened by the global #MeToo movement, had gained prominence across China for demanding that her university release information about a decades-old rape and suicide case.

She should stop her activities, her mother and adviser said, as they shook her awake.

Shortly after the incident, she posted an open letter online about what had happened.

“When I saw my mother bawling, slapping her face, kneeling and begging and even threatening suicide, my heart broke, but as a matter of principle, I could not retreat,” she wrote.

Last month Yue took a leading role in another cause, joining dozens of student activists from across China who had come to the southern city of Huizhou to support factory workers trying to form a labor union.

“At university, my friends and I used to talk about how we lacked motivation, how we felt lost and trapped, but I don’t feel that when I’m here, when I’m engaged with society and fighting for things I believe in,” Yue said on Aug. 23.

In two dozen interviews, Yue and other young rights advocates in southern China spoke about the self-interest and materialism they saw among students in China’s elite universities.

They said that they would rather act to address growing inequality in China, as well as other social concerns.

They have been facing off with the Chinese government in recent months over issues like sexual assault on campuses, workers’ rights and the right to host reading groups to discuss social issues.

Unlike the student leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protests, the activists said they were not calling for an overhaul of China’s political system.

Instead, they take their inspiration from the intellectuals of the May Fourth movement, the 1919 protests that called for China to strengthen itself and were instrumental in forming the Chinese Communist Party.


Today’s rights advocates are calling for greater equality in Chinese society, as well as better treatment for minority groups, migrant workers and lower-income groups.

While apparently small in number, the groups are likely viewed as a challenge by the ruling Communist Party, which is wary of activism with national scope and aware of the role students and intellectuals have played in social movements throughout China’s history, including in its own revolution.

In the interviews, the groups cited Marxist and Leninist ideals, as well as quotes from Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), as they spoke about their desire to address China’s inequalities.

While acknowledging the challenges of Chinese censorship, they have also become adept at getting their message out online and on social media.

They use code words to evade government scrutiny. They communicate on messaging apps using end-to-end encryption. On the heavily censored messaging platform WeChat, they send images of articles, rotated and distorted with shapes and squiggles that can trip up text-recognition functions.

When online censors tried to scrub a letter Yue posted on WeChat in April about being pressured by her university, fellow students used blockchain technology to ensure it remained accessible.

Peking University and China’s Public Security Bureau did not respond to requests for comment.

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