Are China’s university lecturers exploiting their traditional ‘godfatherly’ roles to abuse students?

The suicides of two university students 20 years apart have renewed concerns about the abuse of power by professors on Chinese campuses, a problem rooted in the school system’s flaws and traditional Chinese culture.

Tao Chongyuan was 26 and a postgraduate student at Wuhan University of Technology in the central province of Hubei when he jumped to his death on March 26.

Tao’s family has accused his professor and supervisor, Wang Pan, of exploiting Tao and coercing him to do things like buying his meals, doing his laundry and even confessing his “love” for him as a son to a “father”, based on messages the two exchanged.

Wang was also said to have threatened to expel Tao from his lab and revoke his degree when he applied for PhD programmes overseas and later received job offers, according to Tao’s sister.

Wang has denied any exploitation of Tao.

The school said it has halted Wang from recruiting master’s degree students.

Meanwhile, two former classmates of Gao Yan, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at the prestigious Peking University who committed suicide in 1998, came forward last week to accuse Shen Yang, 62, a former Chinese-language professor at the school, of raping Gao.

Shen has been sacked by his most recent employers, Shanghai Normal University and Nanjing University. He has denied ever engaging in sexual relations with Gao.

Shen and Wang did not respond to requests for comment.

As #MeToo movement gains traction in China, professor is sacked 20 years after alleged rape

While some have linked the revival of claims against Shen to the global #MeToo movement, more have pointed to toxic teacher-student relationships that have exposed problems beyond sexual harassment. These concerns have been described by some as a “persistent and systematic injustice”. 

At least eight cases involving accusations that university professors sexually assaulted or coerced students into assisting in their personal matters have surfaced over the past two years, according to media reports.

After the public criticism of Tao and Gao’s supervisors, alumni of the prominent Renmin University of China stepped forward to accuse two professors at the school of sexual harassment.

An anonymous Renmin graduate said on the microblogging site Weibo that in 2005, a public administration professor hugged her from behind and suggested she could be his mistress. An anonymous user of social media site Zhihu said an economics professor at the university hugged, touched and verbally harassed her, though she did not specify when.

The school said on Friday that it was investigating the charges.

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Experts and insiders say entrenched systems fail to protect students, and especially postgraduates, from being abused by their professors, even though official surveys paint a rosy picture.

“Tao is just the tip of the iceberg. This is a systematic problem existing beyond Wuhan University of Technology,” said an alumnus of the school who asked to remain anonymous.

Because academic institutions allow professors’ power to be virtually unchecked, the traditional culture encouraging tight student-teacher bonds can be exploited.

One of the biggest powers supervisors enjoy is their grasp on students’ dissertations, and this was how Tao found himself beholden to Wang, his family said.

Although many colleges were adopting independent thesis committees made up of anonymous members from both within and outside the school, supervisors could still veto students’ graduation by preventing their thesis drafts from being judged, said Liu Chen, a sociology lecturer at Guilin University of Technology.

Chen Chun, a philosophy scholar holding a PhD from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, agreed about the authority professors can wield.

“Supervisors in Chinese colleges are extremely powerful and can entirely decide whether a student can graduate or not,” he said.

He said a former fellow doctoral student who completed a highly regarded dissertation based on rigorous research was unable to graduate because of friction with his supervisor.

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The predominant single supervisor system exacerbates the situation.

More than 86 per cent of the 2,600 Chinese postgraduates polled by the Chinese Society of Academic Degrees and Graduate Education in 2010 were guided by just one supervisor.

The same survey found that only 27 per cent of the students favoured the single supervisor system over a dual or group structure.

Also, it is extremely difficult for postgraduate students to switch to another supervisor because of strict application systems and tight-knit academic communities.

“For example, Wang suggested Tao follow another supervisor [when he found out Tao had received a job offer], but surely no other professor would dare to take him [for fear of offending him],” Chen said.

Schools generally lack regulations drawing clear boundaries for professors’ powers, or internal mechanisms to provide an effective check on their authority.

“Students are often left without any help when their interests were harmed, and can only resort to media to stir up the public sentiments,” said Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of 21st Century Education Research Institute.

A poll of 48,900 college students by the National Institute of Education Sciences last year found that one of the five areas they were least satisfied with was their “right to expression, participation and supervision”.

Apart from the lack of effective check on professors’ power, the very special nature of the teacher-student relationship in China makes students vulnerable to abuse.

Chinese traditional culture elevated teachers to a parental status, responsible for students’ development in all aspects including morality, said Yang Rui, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong specialising in Chinese higher education.

“A day as a teacher, a lifetime as a father” is a Chinese saying that reflects the ingrained respect for teachers and the care they are expected to give students.

The traditionally tight and almost “moral relationship” between teachers and students has allowed room for those with wrong intentions to exploit them, Yang said.

“The good teachers in the tradition can be really outstanding, but many can also take advantage of the traditions.”

In the case of Tao and many others, this means supervisors and postgraduate students are heavily involved in each others’ lives.

Sun Jin, an education professor at the Beijing Normal University, said that irresponsible teachers were “extreme cases” and that the “positive ones are far more than those being abused”.

Sun agreed that the teacher-student relationship was a “godfatherly” one, but said it was much “warmer” than in some other countries.

Sun, a doctoral student supervisor, would host weekly gatherings with all of his students, and he said he would talk to the ones willing to share about problems ranging from job hunting to romantic relationships.

He thinks the power dynamic is more nuanced than a submissive relationship. 

“Not every student is willing to do what their supervisor asks them to,” Sun said. “They can say no, and there is room for negotiation.”

Yang said the academic power structure was entrenched in Chinese culture.

“The West has been dealing with these problems for a long time, and vulnerable groups have better awareness than those in China,” he said. 

Because of this, changes would take time, he said.

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