- Jessie Lau – @_laujessie
- Da BBC Eye Investigations em Hong Kong
24 May 2022
The arrest in Beijing and trial of one of China’s leading feminists, who received a prestigious scholarship to study in the UK, has ignited a global debate over the responsibility of foreign institutions to protect China’s students.
On September 19, 2021, journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin and labor rights activist Wang Jianbing “disappeared” on their way to the airport in southern China’s Guangzhou city. Huang was about to fly to the UK to study at the University of Sussex on the UK government-funded Chevening Scholarship.
Now, after more than seven months in detention, she and Wang are expected to stand trial on charges of “inciting subversion of the state”, a serious allegation that could carry years in prison.
“Sophia’s case has sparked a delayed global discussion about the role of global institutions in protecting Chinese academics at risk of persecution,” Joanna Chiu, author of the book, tells the BBC. China Unbound and former correspondent in Beijing.
“As Huang received a UK government funded scholarship to study at the University of Sussex, these institutions have a responsibility to fight for his release.”
In recent months, Chinese supporters of Huang have staged solidarity protests in London, Taipei and Hong Kong, launching a campaign called #FreeXueBing, asking supporters to send postcards to the Guangzhou detention center asking for his release. In the UK, supporters are also calling on British institutions to take a stronger stance on the case.
“We are doing this to show that we will not be silenced,” said a Chinese man who lives in London and asked to remain anonymous over security concerns. “We ask the university, the Chevening program and the British government to do more.”
Supporters accuse the university and the Chevening scholarship program of not speaking up for fear of antagonizing the Chinese government.
Students from China make up around 20% of international enrollments at the University of Sussex, and their tuition – along with partnerships with Chinese institutions – provide an important revenue stream.
When Huang’s disappearance was first reported, the University of Sussex and Chevening released the following statement: “We are concerned about the safety and whereabouts of our student. Our team is in contact with Chevening to seek further details.”
But since then, neither of them has made any more public statements.
In a leaked internal email to the BBC, students and staff were warned not to discuss Sophia’s situation following a request for comment on the case. The university said this is a sensitive matter and media requests should be handled by the press office, citing data protection concerns.
Kris, a friend of Huang’s and a Chinese feminist in the UK who spoke to the BBC under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals from the Chinese state, said she was outraged to learn of the university’s “censorship” of her case.
“[A universidade] claims to nurture future feminist activists and leaders [mas] instructed the students not to discuss it,” Kris said. “It’s like you’re in China.”
Responding to the BBC, a spokesperson said the university “remains deeply concerned about the safety and whereabouts of its future student” and is in “regular contact” with the Chevening program and the FCDO, the British government body responsible for the scholarship.
The spokesperson added that the university followed the advice of the FCDO, which told the BBC it was “following the matter closely”.
In December, more than 100 scholarship recipients signed a letter asking Chevening’s leadership team to call for the duo’s release and for the FCDO to engage in dialogue with the Chinese government about their cases. Members of the Union of Universities and Colleges in the United Kingdom also released a statement defending Huang and Wang.
Chevening did not respond to BBC requests for comment.
Lijia Zhang, a Chinese feminist writer in London, told the BBC she was “disappointed” by the relative silence of the international community around Huang’s case, in contrast to that of Peng Shuai, a tennis star who accused a former high school senior. Chinese Communist Party official of sexual assault.
Peng’s disappearance was widely covered by the international media, prompting many tennis celebrities and the Women’s Tennis Association to speak out on her behalf. The WTA also suspended tournaments in China over the case.
In Huang’s case, her own experience of sexual assault led her to conduct a landmark survey in 2017, revealing that more than 80% of female journalists in China experienced sexual harassment but remained silent.
She has also covered the country’s top #MeToo cases and won an award last year for her profile on feminist activist Li Qiaochu.
Now, she is among tens of thousands of activists, including feminists, who have “disappeared” in China after doing human rights work in recent years. She was also detained for three months in China after writing a blog post about Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests.
Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told the BBC that Huang’s case is “emblematic” of the challenges activists face in China under Beijing’s growing crackdown on civil society.
“The government views the #MeToo movement as part of the transnational movement upholding liberal democratic values,” Fu said. “He sees this kind of activism not just as a mobilization threat, but also an ideological one.”
Many, like Huang and Wang, who champion gender rights and other social justice causes, have been framed as agents of hostile Western forces and attacked online by nationalists, according to supporters and academics.
“On the Chinese internet, it is difficult to differentiate between a state-owned internet commentator and an ordinary user,” Liu Lipeng, a former censor of Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo, which is now based in the United States, said in a rare interview with the BBC. .
Liu helped delete “sensitive” content on the platform between 2011 and 2013, reviewing up to 60,000 posts daily. In Huang’s case, he says Chinese authorities have started a disinformation campaign against her.
“Huang is a very famous reporter. If you want to erase everything from her past, it’s an extremely difficult task,” Liu said. “[Em vez disso], they used defamatory comments to negatively influence people’s perception of her. It’s a frightening phenomenon.”
Weibo did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.
The Chinese embassy in the UK told the BBC that China is “committed to upholding equality and social justice” and “strongly opposes anyone who spreads disinformation and slander against China under the guise of protecting human rights and liberties”.
While Huang and Wang’s cases are being turned over to prosecutors in China, Kris and other foreign supporters plan to continue raising awareness of their plight.
“Being inside or outside China is like being inside or outside a fortress. But being outside doesn’t mean you’re free,” Kris said. “It is only when they are freed that we can all be truly free.”
Have you watched our new videos on YouTube? Subscribe to our channel!