Dismissal of Chinese professors seen as major progress on #MeToo

Two prominent cases signal higher-level response to abuses on campus

December 20, 2019
Source: Getty

The dismissal of two professors from respected Chinese universities over sexual harassment allegations made by students online has been seen as a turning point in the #MeToo movement on campuses and the government’s response to it.

Feng Renjie was fired from Peking University on 11 December, and Qian Fengsheng was fired from the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SUFE) on 9 December. The dismissals were notable for their severity, their speed and their prominent coverage in the state media.

Both accusations were initially made on Chinese social media platforms. The case against Professor Qian was based on a 6 December post by a student who published audio recordings and screenshots as evidence that the associate professor had sexually assaulted her in a locked car. The case against Professor Feng reportedly stemmed from posts in November and December. The Weibo pages of SUFE and Peking University included official responses from the institutions, but neither detailed the process used in the investigations.

The Ministry of Education has since 2018 said that it will address sexual harassment at mainland Chinese universities, which generally lack formal channels for student complaints of this nature. This is unlike universities in Hong Kong and Singapore, which have hotlines, victim help units and publicly available sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures.

Leta Hong Fincher, a research scholar at Columbia University and author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, told Times Higher Education that it was unlikely that universities would quickly open public channels for grievances given the broader state controls on activist activity. Nevertheless, she said, the recent dismissals signalled that sexual harassment was getting higher-level attention.

“It’s a clear indication that the Communist Party views public anger over sexual harassment on campuses as a political problem. And so it’s dealing with it quickly, before it becomes an even bigger political problem,” she said. “They do respond to public pressure, and one way to apply pressure is through social media.

“There is a groundswell of anger against widespread sexual violence in general, and more people are emboldened to speak out,” Dr Hong Fincher added.

Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist writer and graduate student at the State University of New York Albany, told THE that the firing of Professor Qian, a 55-year-old associate professor, was “unusual” because his position would normally be seen as an “iron rice bowl”, or a secure job until retirement. Most previous cases have involved suspensions or more junior academics.

Ms Lü said some social media posts related to the case were still blocked. Because of the censorship, it was “hard to say” whether the dismissals would be a turning point in the larger movement. It would also be difficult to predict if there would be substantial progress, given China’s policy of maintaining “social stability”.

Dr Hong Fincher argued that “momentum was building” in public grievances against sexual misconduct.

“It’s not like Chinese professors started harassing students this month,” she said, adding that this was a long-standing and global problem. “Universities around the world get complaints from students about sexual predators, and often do not address them until they are forced to do so.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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