Old Version

Intellectual Disgrace

A spate of sexual harassment cases on Chinese campuses has generated a huge public outcry to ‘put the power of supervisors in a cage’

By NewsChina Updated Mar.6

At a time when Chinese college students are facing growing financial pressures many – particularly graduate students – are forced to deal with an even more insidious threat: sexual harassment and unscrupulous demands from their supervisors prior to graduation.
When professor Chen Xiaowu, executive vice-director of the Beijing-based Beihang University’s Graduate School, was fired early in 2018 after a former student’s accusation of sexual harassment, the floodgates opened. According to NGOCN, a Chinese not-for-profit devoted to defending civil rights, at least 14 sexual harassment cases on Chinese campuses were reported from 2014 to 2017, but many more are believed to have taken place. 
Cases of sexual misconduct on Chinese campuses have exploded into public view and generated unprecedented backlash online over the relationship between academic mentors and the country’s large population of graduate students. 

Breaking the Silence 

In early 2018, Luo Qianqian, who had been a doctoral student under Chen Xiaowu’s care, posted on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media app that her supervisor had tried to pressure her into sex 12 years ago. Luo said she was inspired to come forward by the #MeToo campaign that gained prominence after revelations about US entertainment industry figures in October 2017. Her post received more than three million hits in a single day. Shortly after it went viral, at least six other former students of Chen accused him of similar misconduct. 
Beihang University announced a week later that an investigation found Chen had engaged in sexual harassment, and it had removed him from his teaching post as well as his position as vice-director of the university’s graduate school. He was also stripped of his status as a Yangtze River Scholar, one of China’s highest academic honors for individuals in higher education.
In this case, the university’s action followed swiftly after media exposure even though Luo had reportedly pushed for Chen’s expulsion for four months. In previous cases of misconduct, Chinese university authorities have exerted pressure on students to keep quiet, prioritizing the prevention of reputational damage over justice. 
Sexual harassment is apparently endemic on Chinese university campuses. A study released by the All-China Women’s Federation in 2014 showed 57 percent of female students said they were sexually harassed either physically or verbally, with 23 percent of respondents describing the situation as “severe.” That was based on a survey of 1,200 students at 15 universities in cities including Beijing and Nanjing. Two years later, the China Family Planning Association conducted a survey on college students’ sexual health and found that 35.1 percent of college students had experienced sexual violence or sexual harassment.
In 2016, Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, an NGO in Guangdong Province, released a report on sexual harassment on Chinese campuses after an online survey of more than 6,500 respondents. The results showed 68 percent of college students had encountered sexual harassment at various levels and 75 percent of victims were female students. Males were responsible for 90 percent of the cases of harassment. The findings also showed that in nearly one in 10 cases, university staff had perpetrated the harassment. Most victims had remained silent, with only four percent reporting it to police or university authorities.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, China had 27 million college students, including 1.9 million graduate students, as of 2017. Female supervisors of master’s students accounted for 31.8 percent of the whole, and the number drop to 14.6 percent at the doctoral level. The high proportion of male supervisors is thought to have contributed to the scale of the university system’s sexual harassment problem. 

In a thesis on sexual harassment at Chinese universities, Li Jun, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Macau, reported that some supervisors exchanged benefits, including the publication of papers and the chance to study overseas, in return for sex. They use their power tactically to groom students in order to make the “relationship” sustainable. 

The research also showed that perpetrators painstakingly choose their victims, particularly students from working-class backgrounds and remote areas of China, as well as those who have a strong motivation toward academic achievement. 
Zhang Lijia, a feminist writer and social commentator based in Beijing, told NewsChina that sexual harassment on campus shows that despite improvements, women – including the highly-educated – remain largely in the shadow of men in traditionally male-dominated China. Zhang said sexual harassment was prevalent in many places and was rooted in “the Confucian ideology that has dominated China for centuries.”
“It places women in an inferior position. The issue of campus harassment attracts more attention partly because educated women are less willing to put up with it, and more willing to speak out,” she said. “But sadly, male chauvinism still dominates in today’s China.” 

Imbalance of Power 

Aside from the prevalence of sexual harassment, many graduate students are forced to meet the various needs of their supervisors and to essentially become their personal aids, resulting in a slew of social problems and controversies. 

On December 26, 2017, Yang Baode, a PhD student at Xi’an Jiaotong University, was found dead. He is believed to have drowned himself after several years of alleged mistreatment by his supervisor. Yang’s girlfriend said Yang’s female adviser had regularly forced him to do work unrelated to academic research, including cleaning her room and car, doing her shopping and carrying her bags. What’s more, he was told by his mentor he had to arrive at a moment’s notice anytime before midnight, she said. The last straw was said to have been when Yang’s supervisor reneged on a promise to send him to study overseas.
Yang’s was no isolated case. Two years ago, a graduate student at Nanjing Post and Telecommunications University committed suicide by jumping to his death after long-term emotional abuse by his supervisor. Shortly afterward, a classmate said she was regularly harassed by the same mentor, and said she reported the situation to the university but was told to stay silent. 
At most Chinese universities, students are given the right to change supervisor but in reality this is seldom possible. It is difficult for students to collect sufficient evidence of hardship before lodging a request, and if they are successful it is unlikely other supervisors will take on a “rebellious” student. 

A third-year PhD student at a renowned university in Changchun, northeast China’s Jilin Province, told NewsChina that the university requires all PhD candidates to publish at least two papers in leading academic journals before graduation. After he had drafted two papers and handed to them his supervisor for review, his supervisor replied that the papers were garbage. Several months later, however, he was shocked to discover they had been published under his supervisor’s name. 
“All PhD and master’s students under the supervision of my mentor are afraid to receive his call. Morality and research capacity go hand in hand. The behavior of supervisors hinges on their personal character, and I have been unlucky in this regard,” the student told NewsChina on condition of anonymity. 
“I am always at the service of my mentor – either as an academic aid or a nanny. Most of the work has nothing to do with my own research. What I feel most embarrassing and unbearable is that I regularly have to help wash him when he is bathing,” he said. “I wanted to quit the program several times and I am not sure whether I can hold on. I can’t wait for graduation day.” 

Over the years, supervisors in China have had a strong voice in determining graduate students’ dissertations, overseas study opportunities and graduation, placing students – particularly female students – at a disadvantage. Many of them have to endure in silent resentment. 

Cao Chun, an expert on China’s higher education system at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, argued that the rampant sexual harassment on Chinese campuses stems from supervisors’ habitual abuse of power and a lack of oversight and control over them.  

The PhD candidate added that Western universities have complete codes of conduct for supervisors and strict regulations prohibiting a professor from dating a student. Supervisors in China, however, tend to have the ultimate power to decide the fate of a graduate student. Rules must urgently be established that “put the power of supervisors in a cage,” Cao said. 
“Supervisors in China play the role of agents of their universities, and directly exerted their power,” he told NewsChina. 
“Graduate students form a relationship of attachment with their supervisors, making many supervisors greedy in their demands from students.” 

Prevention Mechanisms 

In 2014, China’s Ministry of Education issued a regulation forbidding teachers from sexually assaulting students or conducting improper behavior, but this failed to specify remedies or penalties, and to clearly lay out the responsibility of schools.
In early 2018, students and alumni from more than 40 Chinese universities launched online petitions, urging their school authorities to introduce policies and take action to prevent sexual harassment. Meanwhile, dozens of professors across the country delivered a joint petition to the education authorities calling for detailed laws and regulations to combat sexual harassment on campuses.
On January 16, 2018, China’s Ministry of Education announced that it would stick to its zero-tolerance policy for any behavior that harms students or violates teacher ethics. 

Xu Mei, the spokeswoman, said that the agency would strictly deal with all sexual harassment cases reported at universities nationwide. The agency would work with other departments to establish a long-term and effective mechanism to prevent sexual harassment on university campuses, she said.
Researcher Chu Zhaohui of the National Institute of Education Sciences says many overseas universities place teachers under the supervision of third-party institutions – including professor committees and teachers’ associations – which handle reports of sexual harassment from students, and offer assistance. 

“Universities should have higher requirements for teachers than other institutions,” he told news site The Paper. “It is crucial to establish a mechanism to combat harassment but it has to balance the rights of parties involved – to protect the victims and provide a complaints channel for the accused.”
A public data search by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center in 2016 returned only three reports about sexual harassment incidents recorded among the 113 major universities in China. Only 13 Chinese universities said that they had ever held sexual harassment prevention education, and not a single university has a specific department or detailed procedures to handle such incidents.
“The authorities should establish a mechanism that includes specific measures to prevent, investigate and punish. And more importantly, we need an atmosphere that doesn’t place pressure on victims,” Zhang Lijia told our reporter. 
“The perfect relationship between an academic adviser and a graduate student is respect for each other.” 

Sexual harassment in China has long been regarded as a moral issue rather than a legal one. To date, there is no clear legal definition, and it is only mentioned in two laws: Special Provisions on Labor Protection of Female Workers which was implemented in 2012, and the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women, enacted in 1992 and amended to include sexual harassment in 2005, which “prohibits sexual harassment of women” and empowers women to “lodge complaints” to relevant organizations. However, neither provide descriptions or specific penalties. 

Ren Yujia, a civil lawyer at Liaoning Think Tank Law Firm in Dalian, in Northeast China, told NewsChina it was very difficult to confirm a sexual harassment case in China because the burden of proof is on the accuser. Many choose to keep silent because sexual harassment is usually conducted secretly, and it is difficult to collect evidence to bring culprits to justice, particularly at universities.
Ren called for “a complete whistle-blowing platform” at universities, saying such a platform must “respect students’ privacy and hold leaders of universities accountable.” 

“Furthermore, compulsory education on combating sexual harassment has to be conducted on campuses nationwide,” he said. “A prevention system is important, but what is more important is to put it into practice.”