Dissertation Title: Non-Compliance within Chinese University Campuses: a study of student associations and political control

My dissertation investigates how the Chinese regime institutionalizes political compliance on university campuses, and in turn how students respond to these efforts. I examine the concept of non-compliance by focusing on the emergence of unregistered student organizations (feizhuce de xuesheng shetuan 非注册的学生社团) on university campuses. In recent years, women’s-based student clubs and LGBTQ student clubs have developed despite university rules. Given extensive measures within Chinese universities to monitor and prevent student-led activism, the emergence of unregistered student organizations precisely reflects instances of resistance and non-compliance.

A prevailing view within the literature on Chinese youth and contentious politics is that in the post-Tiananmen period, university campuses are no longer hotbeds of political activism. Scholars argue that, unlike in the 1980s, students are not particularly interested in politics. Chinese university students are largely described as politically apathetic and that they have been successfully co-opted by the regime. The post-Tiananmen period is also marked by high control within the university, in which political education and intense monitoring render opportunities to engage in political activities difficult. My study challenges these perspectives by examining how the emergence of unregistered student clubs illustrates instances of rule-breaking, non-compliance, and collective mobilization.

Chinese university students have popularized the celebration of “Girls’ Day” (nu xing jie 女性节). On March 7, red banners are hung throughout campus, usually by male classmates.  There have been female students, however, who have pushed against the slogans and messages, criticizing that they evoke gender stereotypes. In reaction to Girls Day banners, there have been reports of female students setting them ablaze or creating counter posters.

I trace the development of LGBTQ and women’s-based civil society organizations and how their activities led to the formation of student-based groups. Further, I look at the overall university ecosystem and how authorities strive to create a system of political compliance within the university.

My study sheds light on an interesting phenomenon, in which the more that universities try to shut out these student organizations, the more likely they become a civil society group in their own right – an unintended and paradoxical outcome as university authorities try to assert political control.