June 4, 2022 marked the 33rd anniversary of Chinese troops opening fire on protesters to suppress the student-led Tiananmen Movement of 1989. In the following decades, student activism in mainland China never ceased, despite tightened ideological control on university campuses. Through progressive book clubs, labor organizing, community-building by queer students, demonstrations for the rights of ethnic minorities, and other activities, students from all across China have continued to speak up.
Due to censorship and information control, not all cases of student activism are well-documented, particularly those predating widespread use of the internet. By relying on reports from the Chinese press and overseas media, the memoirs of participants, and verified social media posts, CDT has compiled the following timeline of student-led resistance in mainland China since 1989. Although only a partial account, it offers a glimpse into how young people continued to push boundaries in the face of political repression, and sometimes even achieved limited success.
(Most recently, draconian COVID pandemic prevention measures have sparked protests on university campuses in various parts of China. CDT has covered the story here.)
A Reading Group at Renmin University
In September 1990, students at Renmin University started an unnamed reading group that facilitated discussions on human rights and commemorated the pro-democracy movement of 1989. The group was headed by Wang Shengli and Liao Jia’an, two graduate students from the philosophy department. Days before the second anniversary of June 4 in 1991, the duo distributed leaflets on the Peking University campus, urging people to remember the Tiananmen Movement. Wang and Liao were subsequently arrested and sentenced to three years in prison.
Nonetheless, student activism continued to spread on various college campuses, according to human rights activist Guo Baosheng, who was an active member of the reading group. On May 4, 1993, Guo and fellow organizer Liu Jun staged a rally at Peking University that drew hundreds of student participants singing songs by progressive musicians such as China’s first rock star Cui Jian, whose music is said to have inspired liberalism among Chinese students in the ’80s. According to Guo, he and Liu were taken away by police during the rally for questioning. Several musicians and participants were also subsequently detained.
Arrests and punishments were sometimes carried out via extrajudicial systems. According to Guo, Tsinghua University student organizer Zhou Yigong was detained by police ahead of June 4 in 1993, and subsequently sentenced to two years of re-education through labor, a now-abolished extrajudicial detention system that was often leveraged against dissidents.
New Youth Study Group
In August 2000, eight Beijing-based intellectuals started the New Youth Study Group in an apartment near Peking University. Members included students and recent graduates of top universities. The loosely-knit group met regularly to discuss social and political issues. According to news reports and essays by individuals close to the group, members subscribed to different ideologies: some were proponents of Western liberalism, whereas others were Chinese Communist Party members who believed that change should come from within the party. What held them together was a shared belief in the pressing need for democratic reforms and freedom of speech in China. Some members published their essays online, and the group adhered to no formal structure or guidelines.
The following March, the authorities arrested Yang Zili, Xu Wei, Zhang Honghai, and Jin Haike, four active members of the group. The arrests came after fellow member Li Yuzhou, then a student at Renmin University, reported the group to state security agents. Two years later, the four were convicted of subversion of state power in a one-day trial and sentenced to eight to ten years in prison, respectively.
The Jasic Factory Labor Disputes
In July 2018, dozens of university students and recent graduates joined labor protests in southern China. Workers at Jasic Technology Co., Ltd., a welding equipment manufacturer in Guangdong Province, had been rallying against low pay and seeking to form a labor union. Dozens of student activists, many of whom self-identified as Marxists, traveled from various provinces to Guangdong to join the workers in demanding the release of fellow protesters and the freedom to unionize.
On August 11, leading student organizer and Sun Yat-sen University graduate Shen Mengyu was abruptly “disappeared.” She was later confirmed to be in police custody. Yue Xin, a fellow organizer who was then a student at Peking University, issued an open letter to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, urging the government to release workers and students in detention, and to investigate what she characterized as the “kidnapping” of Shen. As public pressure mounted, despite strict censorship surrounding the protests, universities began investigating student activists.
On the early morning of August 24, police broke into an apartment near the border of Shenzhen and Huizhou, taking Yue Xin and several other student activists into custody.
In January of 2019, Shen, Yue, and at least two other detainees renounced their activism in apparently coerced “confession videos” circulated by the police. The government has since issued a gag order to domestic press on judicial procedures related to the Jasic labor protests. The whereabouts of these student activists is currently unknown.
Yue Xin, Qiu Zhanxuan, and several other student organizers who joined the Jasic labor protest belonged to the Peking University Marxist Society. Established in 2000, the group organized study sessions of Marxist classics, and offered free evening classes to workers on campus. The group drew broader public attention in 2015, when members surveyed migrant workers and released a report about labor conditions on the PKU campus. The report, cited by various state media outlets, identified problems such as low compensation, overwork, and lack of written contracts. The school administration called the report “unrepresentative,” but praised the students’ “sense of responsibility and humanitarianism,” and promised to investigate “individual cases” of labor abuse.
After participating in the Jasic labor protest in 2018, the group lost its official status as a student organization at PKU. Qiu Zhanxuan, the group’s president and a junior in the Department of Sociology, was detained by police in December on his way to a celebration of Mao Zedong’s birthday. The school administration subsequently stripped him of his leadership role, before appointing new members to reorganize the group. In addition to detention and alleged abuse by police, at least one member of the group was expelled from school in connection with his activism.
The PKU students were by no means the only left-wing activists punished by the state. In August 2021, Fang Ran, a labor-rights researcher and graduate of Tsinghua University, was taken away by state security agents in southern China on charges of subversion of state power. At the time of his arrest, Fang was conducting field research in Guangxi as part of his graduate studies at the University of Hong Kong. He had previously spoken up for workers with “black lung” disease, migrant laborers evicted by the Beijing government, and victims of sexual harassment.
To some political observers, the state’s harsh response to the young leftwing activists revealed a disconnect between China’s official ideology and the students who sought to carry out those ideals by connecting with, mobilizing, and defending the interests of the working class.
On August 15, 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to share their experiences of sexual harrassment and assault with the hashtag #MeToo. That same day, Beihang University graduate Luo Xixi posted an anonymous story on China’s Quora-style platform Zhihu, recounting how she was sexually harrassed by her doctoral advisor Chen Xiaowu 13 years earlier. The post did not generate much attention until Luo made her identity public on New Year’s Day of 2018, thus kickstarting the #MeToo movement in China.
Following Luo’s explosive allegation, many came forward with their own experiences of sexual assault in school—often perpetrated by older, male faculty members. Students and graduates from dozens of Chinese universities issued public statements urging their schools to establish mechanisms to prevent sexual assault and harrassment. On January 15, 2018, two weeks after Luo’s post went viral, China’s Ministry of Education stated that it would “look into improving the long-term mechanism for sexual-assault prevention on university campuses.” The harassment allegation against Chen Xiaowu eventually led to him being dismissed by Beihang University.
Luo Xixi’s efforts and subsequent student activism against sexual harrassment ignited China’s #MeToo movement, dubbed by netizens as “Rice Bunny” (米兔, mǐ tù), in a clever use of homophones to evade censorship.
LGBTQ Student Organizations
On the night of July 6, 2021, dozens of LGBTQ student groups discovered that their social media accounts had been banned and deleted by WeChat moderators. Subsequent attempts to document and protest the ban also met strict censorship. Many of these organizations had been founded by university students over the previous two decades to promote diversity and inclusion on campus and beyond.
The blow came amid a broader government push to to tighten control over queer content online and community-organizing among LGBTQ students at universities. In June 2017, the China Netcasting Services Association (an officially-recognized industry association) issued new guidelines for online content, prohibiting depictions of gay relationships and categorizing homosexuality as lewdness and “sexual perversion.” After the mass deletion of LGBTQ social media accounts in 2021, some university gay rights organizers said that they had been “invited to tea” or warned by school administrators for their activism.
Some Chinese universities are also reportedly collecting names of students who identify as members of the LGBTQ community. Social media posts from at least as early as 2019 show that universities encouraged counselors and student informants to document and report the names and identities of students who identified as queer. In August 2021, a purported internal directive published online shows that Shanghai University asked its colleges to research the political stance and “state of mind” of gay students.
Social media trolls are also targeting queer student groups by accusing them of “ideological infiltration by foreign forces.” In April 2021, a student group at Wuhan University dedicated to promoting gender equality ceased operations and shut down all its social media accounts after ultranationalist influencers attacked the group on Weibo. Similar LGBTQ and gender-equality organizations followed suit, leading to a wave of shutdowns documented by CDT both in English and in Chinese.
Ethnic Minority Students
In October 2010, Tibetan students in China’s northwestern province of Qinghai staged demonstrations for the right to ethnic language education, in response to newly restrictive guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. At the time, approximately one in five residents of Qinghai were Tibetan, and the demand for Tibetan-language education was fairly strong.
Protesters believed that the “bilingual education” program outlined in the new policy would actually reduce Tibetan language instruction in schools. Within days, protests spread from Qinghai to neighboring Gansu Province. Tibetan students at Beijing’s Minzu University of China, a prestigious institution known for training researchers and cadres of minority descent, also reportedly staged an on-campus rally.
The Qinghai provincial government subsequently stated that the new policy had been “misunderstood” and that the right to use ethnic languages remained protected in China. But despite repeated promises from central and local governments, ethnic language learning in China has become increasingly restricted. In December 2018, for example, a Tibetan-majority county in Qinghai reportedly banned monasteries from offering language classes to youths during school breaks, for fear of strengthening their ethnic identity.
More recently, in the fall of 2020, Mongolians in the northern region of Inner Mongolia protested a new policy that would significantly reduce ethnic language instruction in elementary and middle schools. Students and parents gathered peacefully in numerous cities and towns to voice their dissent. In August, local police posted photos of more than 100 protesters taken by street cameras, and offered rewards for tips on the protesters’ whereabouts. In September of 2020, the authorities punished officials and teachers who reportedly refused to carry out the new policy, arrested protesters, and blamed “foreign forces” for inciting the demonstrations.
Connected to restrictions on ethnic language education is the issue of employment discrimination. In 2013, dozens of Tibetan students in Gansu protested against government recruitment policies that were perceived to favor Han Chinese candidates. Although discussion of ethnic affairs is strictly limited in China, overseas activists and international news outlets have long reported employment discrimination against minorities in both the public and private sectors in China.
Other Forms of Activism
In December 2019, students at Fudan University in Shanghai protested a new school charter that dropped references to academic freedom. Dozens of students and faculty members gathered on campus to sing the school anthem whose lyrics included phrases that appeared in the old school charter: “academic independence,” “freedom of thought,” and “freedom from government and religious oppression.”
On June 4, 2021, the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, a series of protests broke out in eastern China, on a scale rarely seen in recent decades. Thousands of students in Zhejiang and Jiangsu, fearing the devaluation of their degrees, demonstrated in opposition to a new proposal that would merge for-profit colleges with vocational institutions. In one incident, students at a college in Nanjing held their principal hostage for over a day. Videos from various schools showed students clashing with campus security and police. In a rare concession to protesters, the merger proposal was eventually shelved.