Tea Leaf Nation

Sex Scandals and Victim-Blaming Bedevil Chinese Universities

Professors are harassing students, then facing surprisingly light punishment.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Reporting sexual harassment and bringing culprits to justice isn’t easy anywhere, and Chinese universities are no exception. In the past two months, two sensational cases have highlighted the social shame and institutional barriers that female students in China face when professors abuse positions of power — and the progress that’s already being made to ensure they face real consequences.

On Nov. 20, liberal newspaper Beijing News revealed that Yu Wanli, an associate professor of international relations at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing, had sexually harassed an exchange student on numerous occasions, and that the student was pregnant with Yu’s child. The scandal quickly flooded Weibo, China’s huge microblogging platform. A post on the verified account of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily condemned the professor’s conduct, declaring that "chasing beautiful women should not become professors’ secondary careers." But hundreds of other comments blamed the exchange student, positing that "the girl was also chasing the professor" and "while you are scolding the professor, don’t forget the girl — [sexual contact on] numerous occasions, she ended up pregnant…. I’m very suspicious." While Yu has now been expelled from the party, the exchange student is calling on the university to expel Yu from his position entirely. Yu refused to speak to the media, stating that "the university has already dealt with this matter; I have nothing to say." The university’s decision has not yet been made public.

This was the second nationally publicized case of a professor harassing female students in as many months. On Oct. 10, at a large banqueting table in the Weichang Pavilion restaurant in Chongqing, a city of around 7 million people in southwest China, a recently retired art professor, Wang Xiaojian, shared a dinner with two young female students from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Three days later, a blogger who had been dining in the same restaurant the same night as Wang uploaded to Weibo photos of Wang, ignoring the young students’ protestations, forcibly kissing them both. The photos provoked hundreds of responses online, split between attacking and defending Wang. One article on the women’s issues website Niubo commented, "I hope those bloggers trying to clear Wang Xiaojian’s name remember, to refuse is not to flirt…. It just means no." But a defender of Wang wrote in the comments section of Chinese state media platform the Paper, "This kind of thing is very common, but it is not always as people think." The author added that Wang’s "heart was kind" and that it was ultimately the photographer "who has caused the girls to lose their pride."

After the scandal broke, Wang’s pension fund was docked, although it’s unclear by how much. But the punishment seems to have been more of a slap on the wrist than a serious warning to other potential offenders. Nevertheless, Wang’s case marks the first time a university professor has been disciplined under new regulations on teacher-student relationship standards in both high schools and universities announced by the Ministry of Education on Oct. 9. The regulations established a "red line," including a ban on "improper" relationships between university staff and students, and made specific mention of sexual harassment.

There is enormous pressure on both staff and students to maintain a university’s "face," that is, its honor and reputation, adds Zhu Xueqin, a women’s rights blogger and campaigner with the China branch of White Ribbon, an international campaign to end violence against women. Zhu told Foreign Policy that as a result, making abuses public can be seen as a betrayal of one’s institution. Several comments on the incident lamented the tainting of the university environment, which many Chinese idealize as a site of wisdom, learning, personal development, and purity. "Study is above all," goes one oft-quoted Song Dynasty poem.

Female students often find they have few places to report harassment anyway. One netizen blamed the tradition of keeping interpersonal problems out of the public realm, summarized in a Chinese expression roughly meaning, "Don’t expose the family’s dirty laundry." In her book Leftover Women, U.S. scholar Leta Hong Fincher writes that a culture in which women are frequently held accountable for the mistakes of men discourages women from reporting cases of sexual harassment (not to mention domestic abuse, which remains entrenched). One commentator on the Wang incident evinced the tendency Fincher decries, asking angrily how Wang’s students "could let him behave in that way."

According to Zhu, reliable figures on the prevalence of such incidents between teachers and students are difficult to come by due to a low reporting rate. A 2007 study on sexual violence against women in China by Ko Ling Chan, an associate professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, expressed a similar caveat regarding reporting of sexual violence. "There is no publicly-released official crime record of rape and sexual assault incidents in Mainland China," the report read. "Rape has been defined by a Chinese woman survivor as something ‘shameful and unspeakable’ so it is not surprising that research on such a sensitive topic is difficult and limited." 

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