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, , despite tightened ideological control on university campuses. Through , 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 .)
A Reading Group at Renmin University
In September 1990, students at Renmin University started an 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 .
Nonetheless, 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 . , 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 , a now-abolished extrajudicial detention system that was often leveraged against dissidents.
New Youth Study Group
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 and 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 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, agents. Two years later, the four were 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. , many of whom , 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 Zhongshan University graduate Shen Mengyu She was later confirmed to be in police custody. Yue Xin, a fellow organizer who was then a student at Peking University, to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in detention, and to investigate what she characterized as the “kidnapping” of Shen. As public pressure mounted, despite, .
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 . The government has since issued 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 . The report, cited by various state media outlets, identified problems such as low compensation, overwork, and lack of written contracts. The 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 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 . In addition to detention and alleged abuse by police, 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 in southern China on . At the time of his arrest, in Guangxi as part of his graduate studies at the University of Hong Kong. He had previously , , and victims of sexual harassment.
To some political observers, the state’s harsh response to the young leftwing activists 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 on New Year’s Day of 2018, thus kickstarting the #MeToo movement in China.