Authorities at China's prestigious Peking University are moving to silence a public outcry after students called for answers over a decades-old rape-and-suicide scandal they suspect was hushed up by officials at the time.
Yue Xin, a student of Peking University's Foreign Languages Institute, was among eight students who submitted a freedom-of-information request to the school on Apr. 9 asking for information on its handling of an allegation made 20 years ago against former lecturer Shen Yang, that he raped a student who later committed suicide.
Publicly, Peking University issued a statement saying it "attached great importance" to the conduct of its staff, and that the university's ethics committee would review the request.
But privately, the university has been putting huge pressure on Yue and her family to remain silent, she said in an open letter, the contents of which were posted online on Tuesday.
"Since Apr. 9, I have been called in continually for 'chats' with university staff, lecturers and senior leaders, even at 1.00 a.m. or 2.00 a.m. on a couple of occasions," Yue wrote. "During these chats, the phrase 'whether or not you will be able to graduate successfully' was mentioned many times."
Yue is currently working on her undergraduate thesis, but has yet to graduate, and has now been "sent home" with her mother, with her future now in doubt.
She said her student adviser and her mother had woken her at 1.00 a.m. on Sunday at her student dormitory, and forced her to delete anything relating to the request from her phone and computer. She was also forced to write a "guarantee" that she wouldn't be taking the matter any further, before being told to leave campus.
"I can't return to campus at the moment," Yue wrote.
The university replied to the students' request last Friday, saying it had "insufficient records" from Shen Yang's tenure there to make public, and that it hadn't been privy to the police investigation of the rape allegations against him. Transcripts of interviews with Shen carried out by the university had been "lost," it said.
"I was very disappointed with this response," Yue wrote. She was apparently not alone.
'Big character poster'
A three-page "big character poster" typically associated with public protest appeared on an official noticeboard of the Communist Party Youth League on the Peking University main campus on Monday, denouncing the university's response, and its subsequent repression of Yue.
"We, the anonymous, respect and admire the courage of classmate Yue," the poster said. "She wanted to be worthy of the spirit of our ancestors of the May Fourth movement ... but all you care about is that there might be some trouble."
"So who is fighting who here? There are two Beidas that are pitted against each other," said the poster, which was removed by security guards soon after posting, but not before being photographed and posted to social media.
Beida is the Chinese-language shorthand for Peking University.
A Peking University student surnamed Zhou said she also supports Yue.
"We totally agree with and support our classmate Yue," Zhou said. "We women have to learn to protect ourselves from sexual harassment on campus ... and it takes a lot of courage for women to speak out about such things."
Meanwhile, Yue called on the university to make a full, written and public explanation of its treatment of her and her family, and formally apologize, as well as to ensure that the incident didn't affect her graduation or future employment prospects.
Repeated calls to Yue's cell phone rang unanswered on Tuesday. But sources close to the situation said her family are currently not taking any calls from the outside world, so as to avoid further trouble with the university.
There are signs that the authorities were shaken by the poster and its references to Peking University's history of student protest movements.
A WeChat message circulating on chat groups linked to Peking University this week called on students to "protect themselves" against a potential crackdown by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on what has been designated a potential political movement.
Student protest fears
It also alluded to another student, surnamed Hao, who was also called in for "a chat," suggesting that the crackdown on campus hasn't been confined to Yue and her family.
"I need to remind teachers and students alike, now that our classmate Hao has been called in for a chat, that the university party committee has decided that this bears the hallmarks of a student protest, that it's a political movement, because students are already starting to organize, and are in touch with forces off-campus," the message said.
"They need to ensure that that there are no negative media reports in China, and that no foreign media organizations report it to further an agenda," the message, posted online by SUPChina, said.
Ni Lihui, an employee who answered the phone at the Peking University Foreign Languages Institute, declined to comment.
"This is the Foreign Languages Institute office, and I know nothing about this," Ni told RFA. "I am totally overwhelmed today. There have been so many phone calls like this."
An official who answered the phone at the Peking University party committee propaganda department asked for an interview request in writing, then said they were unable to give interviews to overseas media organizations.
An official who answered the phone at the foreign cooperation department declined to answer questions when contacted by RFA.
Nanjing University, where Shen had been teaching until the scandal broke, said earlier this month that it was investigating the allegations against him.
Peking University student Gao Yan committed suicide in 1998 after making allegations of rape against Shen.
The case came to light as the #MeToo sexual harassment and assault violence began to go viral in China, leading to a number of high-profile allegations, many leveled against university lecturers in positions of power over their students.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long and Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.