(HRW) – On January 1, Luo Qianqian, a Chinese scientist living in the United States, along with four other women, accused Chen Xiaowu, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Beihang University, of sexually harassing them when they were his students. The accusations were widely reported by Chinese media, and later that day the university suspended him from teaching and launched an investigation.
“I hope this act of weiquan [rights defense] will enable more people … to have enough courage to step forward and say #MeToo,” wrote Luo on her social media account.
But past events serve as a cautionary tale – at least on China’s university campuses. In the past four years, 13 incidents prompted universities to pledge to investigate allegations of sexual harassment by professors, according to the NGOCN, an online information platform for Chinese nongovernmental organizations. But not all those universities provided further information, and those that did only imposed light punishments, such as suspensions. In 2014, Xiamen University merely suspended history professor Wu Chunming from teaching after a group of female students accused him of coercing them into having sex with him. One year later, Wu was chosen to be a founding member of a prominent archaeologists’ group.
According to a 2017 survey of 6,592 college students and recent graduates by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center and the public interest law group Beijing Impact, 69 percent reported that they had been sexually harassed, but less than 4 percent had reported it to their university or the police. The report says only 5 percent of universities offer sexual harassment prevention training, and no school has established formal procedures to handle sexual harassment complaints.
In September 2014, 256 professors and students signed an open letter urging the Ministry of Education to establish sexual harassment prevention and response guidelines for university campuses. In October 2017, the ministry issued a document prohibiting university teachers from “sexually harassing” students or, “having improper relationships,” with them, but the document failed to elaborate on the meaning of these terms or spell out punishments.
Chinese universities will come in line with the #MeToo movement when they promptly, thoroughly, and impartially investigate sexual harassment allegations, when they appropriately define and hold people accountable for sexual harassment, and when students have confidence to report what happened to them.