Two decades ago, a 21-year-old college student at Beijing’s revered Peking University killed herself. Now her story has become a touchstone for students at one of China’s top schools, as #MeToo simmers at college campuses in the country.
Before her death in 1998, Gao Yan had told her best friend that her literature professor had made sexual advances toward her, and later sexually assaulted her. On April 5 this year, a traditional holiday for remembering the dead in China, the friend, Li Youyou, posted an account on social media of Gao’s suffering, saying she was inspired by the stories of recent college students who had come forward with sexual harassment allegations against professors. She publicly named the professor, Shen Yang, who had gone on to another prominent university, and called on him to apologize. Her allegations—which Shen has publicly denied (link in Chinese) and called defamatory—made waves online.
The university responded by saying it had issued a disciplinary notice to Shen Yang in 1998, citing him for violating teaching protocol and ethics. But the university’s 1998 notice offered quite a different account of the situation—it said that Gao had pursued the professor, and that he had dated her out of concern that she was mentally unstable.
Unsatisfied, eight students from Peking University submitted a petition on April 9 asking the school for more information about what had happened back then, in a rare instance of campus activism. In the wake of last year’s #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, dozens of students and alumni from Chinese universities have launched online petitions using the #MeToo hashtag on Weibo, similar to Twitter. When the posts were censored, some turned to using #RiceBunny (米兔), which sounds a lot like #MeToo.
A survey last year from Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, a non-profit group, more than 70% of the nearly 6,000 surveyed (link in Chinese) college students said they had experienced some forms of sexual harassment. Recent months have seen some universities take action on complaints. In January, a professor from another Beijing-based university was fired after his former students said he had sexually harassed them, although the professor denied the allegations.
Now students are seeking some kind of justice for Gao.
According to Li’s account (link in Chinese), Shen initially approached Gao soon after she enrolled with small friendly gestures, such as giving her a lift to school. Then he invited Gao to his house to talk about her academic work, in the summer of 1996. While Gao was looking at a picture on the desk, Shen suddenly put his arms around Gao from behind and started kissing her. “I was so scared, I can hear his breathing in my ear,” Gao told Li, when recalling the incident. On another occasion, Gao told Li the professor had assaulted her.
The belated struggle on behalf of Gao has had some results.
The day after Li posted Gao’s story, Nanjing University, where Shen has been working since 2012, said the school had suspended Shen (link in Chinese). Shen didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But China’s spurts of #MeToo activism are being quickly squelched by authorities alarmed at any possibility of dissent. On Monday (April 23), Yue Xin, a final-year student at Peking University’s School of Foreign Languages, and one of the students who asked the school for more transparency about Gao, posted a letter on the WeChat social media platform.
She said she was disappointed by the school’s response to the petition—the university said it couldn’t share any minutes of the disciplinary meeting on Shen because it “didn’t rise to the level of being recorded.” It also said that the Chinese literature department lost Shen’s self-review over the incident due to “work errors.”
Yue also said that since filing the information petition, teachers from the university had approached her at odd hours to have conversations that lasted deep into the night about her future and whether she’d be able to graduate. They also asked what her family would think of her actions.
On Sunday, after Yue failed to pick up phone calls that night, her college adviser barged into her dormitory at 1am—along with Yue’s mother. The counselor asked Yue to delete information related to the petition and promise in writing not to pursue the matter further. Now, says Yue, she has been staying home from university because her mother is terrified for her and threatened to kill herself.
“Was the freedom of information request a crime?” Yue wrote, “I’d done nothing wrong, and don’t regret exercising my honored rights as a Peking University student.”
Yue’s letter was quickly censored on WeChat. The school quickly issued a response, saying the adviser only went to the dormitory out of concern after Yue failed to answer her phone. “Being concerned that they might disturb other students, Yue and her mother decided to go home,” read the school’s statement (link in Chinese).