Her family name, Gao, means “high” in Chinese. Yan, her given name, means “a rock.” Gao Yan. A tall rock.
Time’s up as Chinese women speak out against abuse on campus
In life as in name, Gao stood out among her peers.
In the summer of 1995, she earned a place at the prestigious Peking University to study Chinese literature. She was a star student, but she was known among her friends for her brilliance as much as for her warmth.
And then she wanted out.
In the second half of her freshman year, Gao told her mother that she didn’t want to go to school any more. Two years later, in 1998, Gao turned on the gas in her apartment and suffocated herself.
For 20 years, the suicide of one of China’s brightest students had gone largely unnoticed, until a global movement against sexual abuse swept through the country and forced a public reckoning.
Last Thursday, Li Youyou, Gao’s close friend at Peking University, accused one of the college’s professors, Shen Yang, of sexually assaulting Gao and being the “main culprit of Gao’s suicide.”
In an open letter she posted online, Li described distressing conversations she had with Gao, who said Shen invited her to his home for “private academic chats” and then molested her like a “hungry wolf.”
She alleged that Shen had repeatedly spread rumors about Gao’s “insanity.”
Gao’s parents said that she had been diagnosed with depression, but refused to take medication. For years, they had maintained that it was her sexual assault which ultimately led to her suicide.
Shen has denied the accusations, according to the Beijing News.
Several months after Gao’s death, Shen received an administrative warning for his “inappropriate behavior” with her, according to a 1998 document issued by Peking University which stated that Shen had “hugged and kissed” the student, but did not mention any physical coercion.
Shen did not respond to emailed messages Inkstone sent Wednesday.
#MeToo in China
Li Youyou’s decision to speak out for her friend was inspired by another whistleblower, Luo Xixi, a former student at Beijing’s Beihang University.
In December, Luo started the first widely shared #MeToo campaign in China by publicly accusing her former doctoral advisor, Chen Xiaowu, of attempting to rape her 12 years ago. Chen denied the accusations.
In January, the university fired the professor after an investigation found that he had sexually harassed multiple female students.
Despite official efforts at censorship, Luo’s campaign rippled through the Chinese internet and society. Soon, more than 8,000 students from 70 universities called for action to root out sexual harassment on campuses.
According to a 2017 survey sampling more than 6,500 students across China by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center last year, nearly 70% of respondents said they had encountered some form of sexual harassment. 40% of reported incidents happened in a public place on campus.
To many observers, there was little surprise that the loudest rallying cry against sexual abuse in China has come from university campuses.
Traditional Chinese culture demands respect for teachers and obedience from students, a dynamic that remains on China’s campuses today.
“Chinese universities are hotbeds for sexual harassment,” Wu Qiang, a former professor of political science at Tsinghua University, said.
In a censored blog post, Wu argued that China’s highly bureaucratic education system further creates a hierarchy that grants professors the power to exploit students and shield them from the consequences.
“There is no basic code of conduct for professors,” he told Inkstone.
Some Chinese professors have been accused of using their power to order their students around as though they were servants: for instance forcing them to clean their homes and buy them meals and groceries, under threat of being blocked from graduating.
“The institutions give the professors the power to do so because they are a united body which shares vested interests,” Lu Pin, a women’s rights activist, told Inkstone.
In March, Tao Chongyuan, a 26-year-old engineering student at Wuhan University of Technology, killed himself after complaining to his family that he “couldn’t take it any more” because his professor treated him like a slave, according to a post by his sister on social media.
Impossible to ignore
As public and damning accusations of sexual abuse made waves across China’s social media in recent months, the Chinese authorities initially censored many of the discussions in the same way it scrubbed posts it deemed politically inappropriate.
But even as internet censorship and the lack of a free press have limited whistleblowers’ power to spread their stories, public outrage made Gao Yan’s case impossible to ignore.
“Gao Yan’s case got so much media coverage and support on social media, that even the censors could not catch up,” Lu said.
It’s an example of how a younger generation, empowered in part by technology and the worldwide #MeToo movement, has forced China to reexamine itself.
“Young people who haven’t been institutionalized are the ones most likely to drive change in China,” Lu said. “A storm has to start somewhere.”
The public outrage over Gao Yan’s 20-year-old case has prompted two more universities to distance themselves from her alleged abuser.
Shanghai Normal University, which had employed Shen Yang as a part-time lecturer, and Nanjing University, his current employer, have severed ties with Shen in the past week.
And Peking University, once Gao’s dream school, has vowed to come up with “zero-tolerance” policies on sexual harassment.
To Gao’s parents, the attention on their daughter’s case has brought them relief, albeit two decades on.
“We see new hopes,” they said in a statement Monday.
After publishing her open letter Li Youyou, who now lives in Canada, said on Wednesday that more women had contacted her with accounts of being victimized by Shen.
For Li, the fight for justice for Gao has just begun.