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Dangerous Liaisons

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The pictured is Peking University's landmark Weiming Lake and Boya Tower in spring on March 31. Photo: IC



Large sections of society have called for a complete ban of teacher-student relationships after media exposed several alleged sexual scandals between college professors and their students.

Just as the furore over Beihang University professor Chen Xiaowu's sexual harassment case was beginning to subside, people were once again shocked by a scandal involving Shen Yang, a former Peking University professor who later taught at Nanjing University.

Shen, a Chinese language professor, was accused of sexually assaulting female student Gao Yan, who committed suicide in 1998, aged 21.  The case resurfaced this week after several people who claimed to be the victim's former classmates published allegations online and demanded a thorough investigation into the case.

Meanwhile, Peking University published on Sunday the details of a 1998 inquiry in which it admitted that Shen and Gao had established a "relationship," and that Gao committed suicide 10 months after Shen ended it. Shen was given an administrative punishment, the university said.

Taboo subject

Instead of pointing the finger of blame at who should shoulder more responsibility or calling for justice to be served, this time, Chinese society has shifted its attention to the dangers of teacher-student relationships.

Unlike some Western countries, China has no explicit rules that ban teachers from having relationships with students, which is something usually frowned upon by traditional Chinese people.

Many teachers have even married their students, the most famous example being Chinese literary giant Lu Xun marrying his student Xu Guangping.

However, such relationships gradually became taboo after some teachers began to use it to cover up their sexual harassment.

Zou Mingwu, a teacher in Beijing, was sentenced to 12 years and six months  in prison for raping a teenage girl, but he had refused to confess to the charges because he claimed they were "in a relationship," said the Xinhua News Agency.

In fact, many schools forbid such relationships as there is a power imbalance between the two sides and students may not be aware that they are being manipulated in the relationship, said Xinhua.

After the Shen Yang incident, many netizens voiced their disagreement with teacher-student relationships. "One side has to quit to let the relationship continue, that's healthy and fair," said Salt-Lee; "Under such circumstances, it is difficult to identify whether it is love or just power worship," said Tashuo.

According to incomplete statistics, 13 sexual harassment cases were uncovered by media between 2014 and 2017, said China National Radio, adding that there may be countless similar cases that remain unknown because the students don't dare report them or were prevented from doing so.

The All-China Women's Federation surveyed students from 15 Chinese universities and found that 57 percent of female students claimed they had been sexually harassed, said the report.

Imbalance of power

This incident has also raised other questions over the teacher-student power dynamic in Chinese campuses.

Shen's case came right after that of Tao Chongyuan, a 25-year-old postgraduate student at the Wuhan University of Technology who committed suicide, reportedly after being mentally abused by his supervisor Wang Pan.

Tao's sister, a PhD student at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), wrote on her Weibo account that her brother was coerced into assisting Wang with his personal affairs. At Wang's request, Tao went to his apartment at night to prepare meals for him and do his laundry.

The power imbalance can become more obvious in the postgraduate and doctoral stage, as tutors have complete power to decide whether and when the student can graduate.

After Tao's death, Ziguangge, a Party-owned publication, said on Weibo: "The supervisor-student relationship in Chinese universities seems neither equal nor healthy. The supervisor often has absolute power over the student, so that some teachers have violated students' legal rights. Meanwhile, there isn't a convenient channel for students to defend their own rights."

Xiong Binqi, vice president of 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the Global Times that when students are mistreated, they often have to rely on the media to defend their rights. However, self-governing student leadership bodies should be involved in the supervision and assessment of events on college campuses.

Global Times

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