Renmin University Entrance, Beijing
The entrance to Renmin University in Beijing. Academics and students say the institution is involved in censorship © Wikicommons

A student at China’s Renmin University has described its attempts to stop her from speaking out over workers’ rights, after Cornell University suspended two student exchange programmes with the Beijing-based institution over restrictions on academic freedoms.

Yang Shuhan, a third-year philosophy student who took part in a pro-workers protest in the summer, told the Financial Times that since returning to Renmin she had been carefully watched by teachers, who warned her against speaking out again.

“They would keep asking to eat with me, and would always end the meals by asking me what activities I’ve been involved in. They keep ‘recommending’ that I don’t post more on social media or accept interviews,” she said. “I still feel these are things I should do. I have not violated any rules. These are my rights.”

Ms Yang was among a group of students who supported workers in southern China trying to start a trade union, in an unusual case of activism among China’s closely-monitored university students.

The case of the leftist students’ worker advocacy has put Chinese authorities in an awkward position.

Organised activism is repressed by the government, and there have been few instances of student protest since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The Communist party remains particularly nervous about students finding common cause with workers, an alliance at the root of its own origins as a revolutionary party. Yet at the same time, students have been encouraged to study Marxism and to concern themselves with workers’ issues.

Although workers’ protests are becoming common as Chinese economic growth begins to slow, student involvement in such disputes is both rare and politically sensitive. Over 30 workers and 40 students were arrested in the course of the protests, the biggest mass arrest of such groups in at least three years.

Cornell suspended two student exchanges with Renmin out of concern that Renmin was punishing students for their support of workers, which the Ivy League university described as a “a violation of academic freedom”.

Renmin declined to comment on Ms Yang’s allegations. 

Ms Yang was placed under effective house arrest for a month after she returned home from Shenzhen, where the workers’ protest took place. One Renmin teacher, she said, stayed in a hotel near her family home in Kunming for a month, leaving only at the start of term. Local police would follow her whenever she left the house, and at one point stopped her from boarding a train to Beijing at the start of the term. 

“This surveillance and interference had a terrible effect on my parents’ health,” Ms Yang added. Other students at Renmin have also spoken privately of harassment after they supported the workers’ protests, but most are unwilling to be quoted for fear of reprisals.

Cornell’s school of industrial and labour relations (ILR) halted its exchanges with Renmin following multiple reports of university pressure and intimidation towards students who helped workers trying to unionise at a Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen.

The dispute between workers and management became a major government concern as students from universities across the country joined the protests. At least four students are still being detained by police, while another has been missing since August.

Renmin denied it had suppressed speech or academic freedom as Cornell had complained, or that it had punished students who had supported workers protesting in the southern city of Shenzhen this past summer.

“We regret Cornell University’s decision, the basis for which . . . was not factual,” said Renmin, adding: “We encourage students and teachers to pay attention to social issues, including labour issues, and advocate joining theory and practice.” 

Ms Yang wrote in an open letter that, after Renmin had threatened her with a year-long suspension, the university forced her to sign a promise “not to take part in activities that harm social stability . . . not to publish inappropriate speech on the internet”.

The university also responded to allegations made by Zhang Zihan, a second-year Renmin undergraduate student who said in a public letter that she was disciplined in front of her entire year for posting pro-Jasic workers’ comments on WeChat. 

Renmin said that she was punished for using her phone, rather than for the content of her posts, while Ms Zhang said that only her pro-Jasic posts were singled out. 

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