HUIZHOU, China (Reuters) – At 1 am on April 23, Yue Xin 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,” she wrote.
“But as a matter of principle, I could not retreat.”
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 labour union.
“At university, my friends and I used to talk about how we lacked motivation, how we felt lost and trapped,” Yue told Reuters on August 23.
“But I don’t feel that when I’m here, when I’m engaged with society and fighting for things I believe in,” said Yue, who has shoulder-length black hair she often ties into pigtails.
In two-dozen interviews, Yue and other young activists in southern China spoke about the self-interest and materialism they saw among students in China’s elite universities.
The activists said they’d 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 weren’t 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 activists 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 activists 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 activists cited Marxist and Leninist ideals, as well as quotes from Mao Zedong and President Xi Jinping, 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.
That evening, China’s official Xinhua news agency released the first state media coverage of the protests, condemning the factory workers and alleging they had been supported by organisations backed by foreign governments. The story did not mention the raid in Huizhou.
The article made one reference to the students, saying they had been “swept up” by the “persistent agitation” of overseas websites.
Reuters spoke with the activists before they were detained, in the four-bedroom apartment they had rented on the outskirts of Huizhou.
They had rosters to share duties for preparing meals and cleaning, as well as shooting and editing videos, outreach and social media.
Several students talked about the diverse range of social issues they were engaged in through on-campus clubs – from fighting against sexual harassment to improving the lives of migrant workers in megacities like Beijing.
Around 50 students – including around 20 from Peking University – and other activists originally came to Huizhou after some Jasic workers were detained by the authorities.
Their numbers more than doubled after a leading activist, Shen Mengyu, was taken away in a car by three unidentified men on August 11.
“Something that is really drilled into us at university is this concept of having ‘sentiments for the family and country’,” said Feng Ge, 23, a Peking University student. “It can’t just be an empty slogan. Here we have an opportunity to act.”
Support for the factory workers has poured in from around the country, the students said, adding that many friends and classmates had sent donations over WeChat.
Yue and Zheng said new supporters had been calling each day, saying they wanted to join the activists but were too afraid.
Yue, who had been in regular contact with Reuters about the worker protests, has not responded to repeated phone calls and text messages since the raid.
Before she disappeared, Yue wrote an open letter to Xi, saying that young people of all backgrounds should live among the working class – an example Xi set himself when he lived in a rural Chinese village.
“We are not a foreign power, nor a student revolution, nor do we make other political demands,” Yue said in the letter published online on August 19.
“We just want to ensure there is justice for the Jasic factory workers.”
Despite the pressure from the authorities, the activists appear undeterred.
“Can it really be that the students of elite universities should only eat, drink and be merry,” Zhang Shengye, a Peking University graduate, wrote in an open letter released on Sunday and signed by more than 60 supporters of the factory workers.
“Should we avoid discussing affairs of the nation and just be blindly subservient?”
Zhang was detained on Sunday night, labour activists told Reuters.