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China keeps a close eye on university student groups

Peking University's tuanwei, an arm of the Communist Youth League, is a means for the Communist Party to monitor and exert control over extracurricular groups.

December 09, 2012|By Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times
  • A paramilitary police officer stand guard during the flag-lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
A paramilitary police officer stand guard during the flag-lowering ceremony… (Feng Li / AFP/Getty Images )

BEIJING — It could have been any of his recent articles: The one on violent revolution was particularly sensitive, as was another on China's history of capital punishment. But it was probably the article about how to behave if the authorities "treat you to tea" — a euphemism for interrogation — that got Bo Ran, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Peking University, treated to tea himself.

Bo is a former editor in chief of Beidou, a scrappy 4-year-old online student magazine that operates out of an apartment painted neon green near the university. The men who took him to a small cafe near campus last fall did not reveal their names or affiliations. They told Bo he was being watched. One suggested he be more "moderate."

"They weren't very detailed," Bo said. "But based on what they were saying, I could tell that they understood our website really well."

Historically, China's universities have occupied central roles in many of the country's political upheavals. The Chinese government is all too aware of that fact and has devised elaborate systems to maintain social stability on campuses, including extending the reach of the Communist Party through its own powerful student organizations.

This means that it can be a tortuous endeavor for students to simply engage in extracurricular activities. Registered groups are tightly controlled by a draconian bureaucracy, and unregistered groups like Beidou often face restrictions, intimidation and worse.

Peking University's 700-acre campus in northwest Beijing is home to more than 200 official extracurricular organizations, such as singing ensembles, theater troupes, sports teams and more.

As with China's other public universities, its student groups are administered by the school's Communist Youth League Committee, or tuanwei, a student-staffed organization with direct ties to university officials. The tuanwei authorizes student groups' formation, signs off on their meetings and dictates where and when they may hold events.

Early this year, China's presumptive future president, Xi Jinping — whose daughter is an undergraduate at Harvard — said in a speech that universities should increase "thought control" over students.

"University Communist Party organs must adopt firmer and stronger measures to maintain harmony and stability in universities," Xi told an audience of high-ranking party officials and university administrators.

Peking University's history of student activism dates to 1919. Its students sparked the May 4 Movement after converging on Tiananmen Square in central Beijing to protest the government's weakness against foreign imperialism. Seventy years later, in 1989, they returned to the square en masse demanding transparency, democracy and rule of law — protests that led to the brutal June 4 crackdown.

The authorities' fear of another Tiananmen-like incident is palpable, leading them to censor even online keywords related to those protests.

After anonymous calls for an "Arab Spring"-style "Jasmine Revolution" in China began to circulate online in March, the Peking University tuanwei canceled student group meetings on short notice. It arranged small meetings with students in dorms and warned them not to do anything extreme. And Peking University authorities announced a program that would require counseling for a "targeted group of students," including those with "independent lifestyles" and "radical thoughts."

Zeng Zhen, a 19-year-old economics student at Peking University who directs a student group called Alliance of Students Against Poverty, said the tuanwei often makes forming new groups more trouble than it's worth. Rejections are common. Aspiring student leaders must take examinations about school regulations and undergo "trial periods" that drag on for weeks.

If a group finally wins permission to form, each of its activities must be independently approved. Should a group want to host a speaker from outside the university, it must submit a full draft of the speech to the tuanwei in advance.

"Even if we are allowed to enter a university to give a speech, the event could still be disrupted," said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar who spent 13 years in prison for helping organize the Tiananmen Square protests. "Sometimes they'll just turn the lights off or cut the power."

The tuanwei is part of the Communist Youth League, a "mass youth organization" of 14- to 28-year-olds that had 73 million members at the end of 2006. "Everyone is in the Youth League," said Hu Yunzhi, a 20-year-old tuanwei member at Peking University. "If you don't join in high school, people will think there's something wrong with you."

Success in the tuanwei can open doors later. Elite members are often given spots in top graduate programs regardless of their academic standing. Many use their tuanwei connections to land cushy jobs in prestigious government departments.

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