By Christian Shepherd
BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s prestigious Peking University, historically a bastion of student activism, has moved to quash dissent and strengthen Communist Party control after a spate of protests across China on issues ranging from labour rights to #MeToo.
The clampdown comes amid an ongoing tightening of control over various aspects of Chinese society since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, a period that has seen increasing censorship and shrinking space for protests, including on campuses.
Late on Wednesday, the university, informally known as Beida, warned all students against taking part in demonstrations of support for recent labour-rights activism involving former students and said they would be held responsible if they “challenged the law”.
“The school believes that the majority of students are sensible, but if there are those near you who are spreading rumours or reactionary sentiments, regardless if they are your teacher or your friend or your schoolmate, please keep a firm stance,” students were told over instant messaging platforms.
On Tuesday, the Communist Party committee at Beida set up new bodies responsible for disciplinary inspection tours and campus “control and management”, according to a document released by the committee and seen by Reuters, moves that tighten enforcement of party discipline.
The committee also held a meeting for all campus members and told them that a recent graduate who was among those missing following weekend labour protests was working with an illegal organisation, a source briefed on the meeting told Reuters.
A spokesman for Peking University contacted by Reuters on Wednesday said that they were not able to immediately comment on the meeting or warnings to students.
The campus attendees were told that the group in question, which was not identified, had a charter and “passwords” and the government had sanctioned the arrest of Zhang Shengye, the former student, the source said, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said the measures were likely in response to student activism. “The Communist Party is highly sensitive to any kind of organised movement on university campuses,” he said.
Students at Peking University, set on a sprawling, leafy campus in northwestern Beijing, played a central role in launching the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement in 1919 and the pro-democracy Tiananmen protests in 1989.
But campus activism has been increasingly marginalised in the Xi era, and a movement that saw students and recent graduates of universities including Beida team up with labour activists to support factory workers fighting the right to set up their own union has been dealt with harshly by authorities, attracting international media coverage.
Last month, the party announced that Qiu Shuiping, an official with little experience of running a school who has spent years in China’s legal system, including as head of the Beijing state security bureau, had been made party secretary of the university, an appointment seen by experts on Chinese politics as heralding a tougher disciplinary line.
Over the weekend, at least 12 labour activists, mostly students and recent graduates, went missing in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan in what a source close to them believed was a coordinated effort to silence them.
Five of those were recent graduates of Peking. One of them, Zhang, was grabbed by unidentified men and bundled into a car on the campus. The university told Reuters that the incident was a lawful seizure by police of a suspect and did not involve students.
The incident sparked a flurry of activity from a group of students, who call themselves a “concern group for missing Peking university graduates”, and handed out information about the abduction and other missing students in a university cafeteria on Sunday.
On Monday and Tuesday, students who had spoken out or supported the labour rights movement were warned by teachers, their parents and what appeared to be plainclothes policemen, according to one of the students, who declined to be named.
In the meetings, students were told that the university had previously protected them because they were “bewitched” by the group, but from now on anyone who demonstrated on behalf of those missing or handed out leaflets would not be protected, the student said.
“They did not say specifically which law had been broken or how, and they did not give an explanation of why they had unscrupulously seized people on campus,” the student said.
“Zhang Shengye was someone who was concerned about society, cared about the lower-classes and was close to workers. Why would someone like that be treated like this?”
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie)