By PHILIP P. PAN
HE was the son of poor farmers from a small village in southern China, a shy computer student as thin as a stick. She was the daughter of Communist Party officials in Beijing, a bubbly law major with a rosy, round face. On a mountain campus in Chongqing, a huge city in central China, they fell in love.
They flirted in the dining hall, held hands at the movies, enjoyed romantic strolls along the lumbering Yangtze River. Like college sweethearts around the world, Louis Lin and Mary Ma eventually lost their virginity together, too.
Then last October, Ma discovered she was pregnant. Her doctor notified the college, and officials enforced a long-standing policy at universities across China: Students caught having sex before marriage must be expelled.
Instead of breaking up and returning home in shame like countless young couples before them, Ma and Lin decided to fight back. They called reporters and took their college to court.
In doing so, these 19-year-old sophomores at the Chongqing University of Post and Telecom touched off a rare public debate about sex, privacy and traditional values in this rapidly modernising society. On television and the Internet, in newspapers across the country, people in China have been discussing what one sympathetic commentator described as “a simple story of love and courage.''
“At first, we were worried about going public,'' said Ma, who has not been named by Chinese media and asked that she and her boyfriend be identified by the English first names they use with foreigners to protect their privacy. “But China is changing. With economic development comes social progress, so it's natural that people's views on sex should change, too. The problem is the university isn't keeping up.''
“I don't think there's anything improper about what we did,'' Lin added, his hand grasping his girlfriend's as he spoke. “And anyway, it's a private affair. The school shouldn't be involved at all.''
Thousands join debate Thousands of people, young and old, have responded to the couple's story by flooding newspapers with letters and phone calls and plastering the Internet with messages. Some condemned “the Western sexual revolution'' and argued that “college shouldn't be a sexual amusement park.'' But the vast majority supported the couple and blasted the school for being unreasonable and old-fashioned.
“Hey, wake up! It's the 21st century already!'' said Christine Liang, 23, a graduate student at Beijing University.
“What's the point of expelling them? Everyone knows young people are doing this kind of thing,'' said Liu Xiaoli, 52, a cab driver with a teenage daughter in Chongqing, 1,490km west of Shanghai. “And at college, when you have so many healthy young people together, it's natural.''
For centuries, such views were unthinkable in China. Although liberal attitudes about sex prevailed during much of the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907, conservative sexual mores have dominated for more than 500 years. At one time, unmarried men and women were not permitted even to shake hands.
After the Communist revolution in 1949, the party added a political element, labelling recreational sex a decadent pastime and “a bourgeois evil.'' Communes sometimes required husbands and wives to live apart and adultery became a serious offence.
Sexual revolution Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, however, China has been experiencing a sexual revolution, fuelled by an opening to the outside world and the party's retreat from people's personal lives. Couples are no longer afraid to hold hands or kiss in public. Form-fitting fashions have replaced drab Mao suits. Prostitution and pornography, all but eradicated in the 1950s, are back in force.
Such rapid change has caused significant social strains, because a deep conservative streak still runs through much of Chinese society, especially its government and educational institutions. Sex education, as it is understood in the West, is virtually unheard of here. Condom ads are banned from public places in many cities. And party officials regularly launch campaigns against “spiritual pollution.''
The ambivalence is perhaps best illustrated by the brisk business many Chinese hospitals do in a procedure to “repair'' a woman's hymen and make it appear she is a virgin. Do-it-yourself hymen repair kits are also sold in many of the more than 2,000 shops specialising in sexual aids that have opened in China. One shop here in Chongqing reported selling 30 to 40 kits every week.
A father's pride
“Most people in society have begun to change their views about sex, but there is a tension because many of the people in charge, especially at the local level, have not,'' said Ma's father, Ma Zheng, a government lawyer.
Ma said he was surprised and angry when his daughter called and told him she was going to be expelled for having sex. But he eventually came around to her arguments and now expresses pride in her courage. He even agreed to represent her and her boyfriend in court.
“It's a sign of progress for China that an ordinary person like my daughter can now challenge the authorities,'' he said. “When I was a college student, no one would have dared do anything like that.''
Though the courts and the media remain firmly under the control of the Communist Party, officials have granted judges and journalists a limited degree of independence, especially in handling matters outside politics. And the state-run press has sided with Ma and Lin.
As a result, much of China is familiar with the details of their romance: how they met freshman year while doing charity work, how they hit it off and gradually began dating, how their relationship deepened despite their many differences.
Newspapers also recounted how Lin took Ma to the campus hospital in October after she fainted with abdominal pains. Doctors diagnosed internal bleeding caused by an ectopic pregnancy, a dangerous condition in which a fertilised ovum develops outside the uterus and cannot be carried to term.
Lin stayed at Ma's bedside as she recovered from surgery, and school officials checked on her and told her to rest and take care of herself. They told Lin to watch after his girlfriend, and added that they shouldn't worry about the punishment yet, he recalled.
“Up until then, we didn't even think there would be a punishment,'' he said.
But days after Ma was discharged from the hospital, college officials summoned them and told them to write confessions detailing where, when and how many times they had had sex. They also advised them to admit they had engaged in “morally degenerate and disgusting conduct and improper sexual activity.'' If they confessed, the students said, the college would consider allowing them to withdraw from school without the violation being recorded in their permanent records. But expulsion was almost a certainty, they said.
“So we said no,'' Ma recalled. “Why should we confess when we had done nothing wrong? I didn't agree that what we did was immoral. Sex is a matter of emotion, not morality.''
Taking a stand At first, the couple was embarrassed and worried about being ostracised. But their classmates went out of their way to express support, and some posted a petition protesting the school's decision on the campus computer network.
Officials quickly deleted it. In a statement distributed to Chinese journalists, the school defended its decision as “cautious and correct'' and consistent with the policies of other Chinese colleges.
“Punishing this type of improper sexual activity is not only a school's right, it is also a legal duty and requirement of the spiritual culture and moral construction of universities and the entire nation,'' the school said. It also blamed Ma's father for “making trouble'' by supporting his daughter and her boyfriend, noting that “his words and actions are widely divergent from his position as a party member.''
Reached by telephone, a Chongqing government spokeswoman expressed surprise at the school's decision to expel the two students.
But later she denied requests for interviews with school or city officials. “It's not the right time,'' she said. “Everything has not been decided.''
The courts have already rejected the students' lawsuit twice. They continue to appeal, but acknowledge that their chances of success are slim. In the meantime, Ma has been studying English on her own and plans to apply to universities abroad. But she is worried about the cost of tuition and about her boyfriend, who cannot afford to go overseas.
“We may not win, but it's important to take a stand,'' she said. “We may be sacrificing ourselves, but China is changing and, eventually, this kind of thing won't happen anymore.'' – LAT-WP