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Academic Exploitation in China: Online Voices Help Three Victims Speak from beyond the Grave

“How many still need to suffer in universities over inappropriate behavior by their professor?”, online voices say.

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A protest sign at Xi'an University commemorates the suicide of Yang Baode (image acquired via zhihu.com).

Recently, different stories about abusive professor-student relations and their fatal consequences have attracted the attention of Chinese media and netizens. Online voices speak out against the problem of academic exploitation in China, and call on students to unify and empower themselves.

On March 11 of 1998, a 21-year-old female Peking University student named Gao Yan (高岩) committed suicide. Twenty years after her death, some of Gao’s old classmates, most importantly a woman named Li Youyou (李悠悠) who now lives in Canada, have come forward on Chinese social media.

They have linked Gao’s suicide to the behavior of Professor Shen Yang (沈阳), who had since moved on to work in the Literature & Language department of Nanjing University.

Gao Yan when she was going to university.

According to South China Morning Post, Gao’s classmates have since long claimed their former classmate had been raped by the professor on multiple occasions over a two-year period, and had been called “mentally ill” by him, before taking her own life. Gao’s old friends have been calling for a re-examination of the case.

The case has drawn much attention on Chinese social media over the past week. Although Shen has denied all accusations through a statement on April 7, Peking University stated it did serve Shen a disciplinary warning in 1998 based on a police report about his inappropriate conduct.

The professor has now been sacked by two of his employers, Shanghai Normal University and Nanjing University’s liberal arts school.

 

More University Suicides: Yang Baode 杨宝德

 

The Shen Yang case has been placed into the larger framework of the ‘Metoo movement in China‘ by various online media such as the New York Times or SCMP.

Li Youyou, the Canada-based former friend of Gao, also told Chinese media that she wanted to expose the two-decade-old sexual assault case because she was inspired by the #MeToo movement and by Luo Xixi, who came forward about a sexual assault case earlier this year, which involved her former Beihang University Professor Chen Xiaowu.

But on Chinese social media, rather than a ‘#metoo’ movement, netizens link the story with that of two other recent university suicides and the bigger problem of exploitation of students in Chinese universities. More than sexual abuse, it is also about emotional and verbal abuse, and official misconduct in academic circles – regardless of gender.

One of these stories is that of Yang Baode (杨宝德). In December of 2017, the 28-year-old Yang Baode, a male PhD student at Xi’an Jiaotong University, went missing and was later found drowned in a river 10 kilometers from campus, as noted by Sixth Tone.

Yang Baode (image via Weibo).

Yang’s girlfriend Li Xin (李欣) and relatives then came forward and said Yang had drowned himself because of the enormous pressure he faced at the university, as his female supervisor Zhou Jun practically treated him as a slave, making him clean and shop for her for years.

In a letter from Yang to his previous Master thesis supervisor, he also complained about Zhou, writing: “I’m suffering every single day.”

 

The Wuhan Case: Tao Chongyuan

 

The third suicide case that has attracted the attention of Chinese social media users is that of the 25-year-old Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) post-graduate student Tao Chongyuan (陶崇园), who jumped to his death on March 26.

According to an account on social media written by Tao’s sister (@陶崇园姐姐), Tao committed suicide to break away from the control of his supervisor, Professor Wang Pan (王攀). (Also see detailed report on this case by SupChina‘s Tianyu Fang.)

Tao Chongyuan

Tao was allegedly required to call his supervisor “father,” buy lunches for him, wash his clothes or give him wake-up calls. A former classmate of Tao told Chinese reporters that Wang used a “tough military style with his students”, “putting immense mental pressure on them.”

State newspaper People’s Daily reported that Professor Wang Pan was stripped of his title by the university on April 8, after the university found enough evidence indicating that Wang acted highly inappropriately towards his student.

 

Traditional Teacher-Student Relations “Unsuited to Modern Society”

 

“Yang Baode, Gao Yan, Tao Chongyuan – three names, three crying voices,” one Weibo netizen writes: “All I can do is warn, alert, and care about my child.”

“The power of the supervisor over PhD students in China is too big,” other commenters on Weibo write. “How many people still need to die because of this reason?”, one blogger asks.

In February of this year, Professor Yang Chunmei wrote that “inappropriate relationships between faculty and students have deep historical roots.”

In this article, she traces the Chinese teacher-student relations back to Confucian thought and China’s history, in which the notion was internalized “that a good teacher was akin to a good father.” Yang writes:

“Because children were expected to show deference to their fathers, students were obliged to treat their teachers in the same way, regardless of whether their teachers were right or wrong. This principle introduced the notion of hierarchy into teacher-student relationships.”

Yang argues that these traditional student-teacher relationships are “unsuited to modern society”, and many netizens express similar sentiments and worry about the future of their children.

One commenter noted that in a highly competitive academic environment, Chinese parents do everything they can to give their children the opportunity to get into a prestigious university. But if they are not safe there and driven into depression, then “what’s the point” to all their endeavors?

 

“Students Must Unite”

 

The issue is also a hot item of debate on Chinese Q&A platform Zhihu.com, where a top commenter promoted the platform teacher-ranking platform mysupervisor.org as a solution to expose inappropriate behavior by professors and to empower students caught in unhealthy relations with their supervisors. They write:

“Students only have limited power, and the relationship between students and teachers is naturally imbalanced. So we have to unite ourselves. This website is anonymous. Please evaluate [your professor], and don’t let those creepy ones get away easily. More importantly – even if teachers force students to give positive comments, it will still not diminish our power. After all, the effect of a string of negative evaluations will surpass that of 100 good reviews.”

Through mysupervisor.org, Chinese students can evaluate their teachers.

The call by the Zhihu user has received nearly 800 comments and 2600 upvotes in two days time.

Meanwhile, the stories of Gao Yan and the others keep generating discussions on Weibo, WeChat, and other online platforms.

“Our state education is rotten,” one person writes: “From Gao Yan’s death to that of Yang Baode and Tao Chongyuan, what more is needed to wake up our country that our education is corroded? Students, come forward and offer more evidence … society, wake up!”

By Manya Koetse with contributions from Miranda Barnes and Richard Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.


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China and Covid19

The Curious Case of the Henan Bank Depositors and the Changing Health QR Codes

“It must be American hackers who did this, right?”, some Weibo commenters wrote in light of the miraculously changing Health Codes.

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Where can people turn to once their money seems to have gone up in flames? How could Health Codes randomly turn from green to red? And who will stand up for justice? These are the questions asked by Chinese netizens in the Henan bank depositors case that is making headlines this week.

This week, the story of a Henan banking scandal and depositors’ Health Codes suddenly turning red triggered online discussions in China and even made international headlines.

In between online deposit products, financial platforms, regional banks, and Health Code systems, the story is a bit messy. Here, we’ll explain the story and its latest developments.

 

DUPED DEPOSITORS

 

The story starts in April of this year when people discovered that they were unable to withdraw money they had invested in online deposit products offered by various smaller regional banks.

Some people had deposited money via the Baidu money app (Du Xiaoman Financial 度小满), others had used another third-party platform, intermediaries, or one of the mini-programs run by the banks themselves.

By early May, it had become clear that dozens of depositors who once thought they had invested their money wisely had actually been duped. Four of the banks involved are located in Henan province, namely: the Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank (禹州新民生村镇银行), Shangcai Huimin County Bank (上蔡惠民村镇银行), Zhecheng Huanghuai Community Bank (柘城黄淮村镇银行), and the Kaifeng New Oriental Country Bank (开封新东方村镇银行).

But there are also other smaller banks involved, including Guzhen Xinhuaihe Rural Bank (固镇新淮河村镇银行) and Yixian Xinhuaihe Rural Bank (黟县新淮河村镇银行) in Anhui.

As reported by South China Morning Post by late May, multiple customers had confirmed that they had not been able to withdraw funds either online or in person.

The sudden apparent closure of their withdrawal channels set off a wave of panic among depositors, who then protested in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou on May 23rd, demanding the return of their money.

Yang Huajun (杨华军), deputy director of the Henan branch of China’s Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), arrived at the scene of the protests and – speaking through a megaphone – promised the demonstrators that as long as their funds were “legally” deposited, they would be protected by law.

Many depositers, however, were unsure of whether or not their deposits were actually made in a “legal” way and what the definition of “legal” entailed in this case.

Over the past years, Chinese smaller rural banks have partnered with online platforms, often offering relatively high returns, in order to boost their deposit-reliant funding base.

In December of 2020, platforms Alipay, Du Xiaoman Financial, JD.com and Tencent Wealth Management all suspended the sale of online deposit products via their financial apps in light of heightened scrutiny from regulators concerning funds raised by unstable smaller lenders.

The smaller banks that are now at the center of the recent financial scandal then (illegally) reached out to their existing customers directly after December 2020 and convinced them to download the banks’ apps in order to deposit even more money.

One of the persons duped is Mr. Sun from Shenzhen. As reported by Sina Finance, it was in 2020 when Sun came across a seemingly attractive online saving product via the Du Xiaoman Financial app. Although Sun was not familiar with the banks in question, namely the Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank and Shangcai Huimin County Bank, he could not resist the deposit interest rate of 4.6%, which was much better than what the big banks were offering at the time.

In early 2021, Mr. Sun received a text message from Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank saying that although the financial products had been taken offline, users would still be able to deposit through the bank’s own online application. Mr. Sun ended up depositing his entire savings into the Henan-based rural bank, thousands of miles away from his own home.

And then, earlier this year, Sun came across the news that Henan New Wealth Group, the primary shareholder of all banks involved, was under investigation for fraudulous practices. When he opened up his online financial application, there was nothing to see but a notice that the system was under maintenance. Sun could no longer access his funds. Hundreds of other customers were seeing the same empty screens.

According to media reports, the current suspected scam case affects some 400,000 customers of seven local banks and involves a money sum of 40 billion yuan ($5,6 billion).

 

IN THE RED

 

As thousands of depositors have been fighting to recover their savings over the past two months, they were duped a second time earlier this week. Dozens of affected depositors claimed they had seen their Health Codes turn red without any logical reason on June 13 or June 14 – the day of a planned protest.

In China’s Covid era, the Health Code system has become a pivotal tool in the country’s battle to contain the spread of the virus. The Health Code system is embedded in various apps, most importantly in Wechat and Alipay, and uses various data to assess an individual’s exposure risk. There is not one unified national Health Code application; they are developed by different actors and their management is different across Chinese provinces and cities.

If there is no detected risk, an individual is assigned a Green QR Code and is allowed access into any venue or location where a QR code scan is mandatory. With a Yellow Code, you should stay home for a week, and Red Code means you are high risk and need to quarantine for 14 days – this severely limits your freedom to move around and travel.

On June 13th, many affected investors saw their Health Code turn red when arriving in Zhengzhou, where they were allegedly coming to retrieve their savings and protest the injustice they suffered. The QR code color change was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity and also considering the fact that accompanying family members who made the exact same journey did not see their Health Codes change.

This raised suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted, and that their Health Codes were being manipulated by authorities.

CNN reported that many distributors who had come to Zhengzhou were taken to a guarded quarantine hotel before being sent back to their hometowns via train the next day. According to a Chinese media report by Nanfang Daily, the depositors were not even asked to do nucleic acid testing and were told by local staff that they would get their Green Code back as soon as they left Henan.

Various media report that minimally 200 depositors saw their Health Code change from Green to Red earlier this week.

 

“OPERATION CODE RED”

 

The curious case of the Henan depositors scandal and the changing Health Code colors has become a trending topic on Chinese social media this week.

The topic of the duped depositors was also discussed online before this week, and it brought back memories of earlier financial scandals, such as the P2P chaos that occurred back in 2018.

But the topic of depositors’ Health Codes changing to Red is something that attracted much wider discussions on the apparent abuse of a system that has now become a part of everyday life for people in China’s Covid era.

The main proof for people that the Henan depositors were targeted in this apparent “Operation Code Red” is that, as mentioned before, the family members that were traveling together with the duped depositors never saw a change in their Health Code: those people who were listed on the affected regional banks’ depositors list were seemingly singled out and purposely targeted.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their powers to try and stop protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. One Weibo post on this issue received over 1,6 million views. Meanwhile, Henan authorities still said they did “not understand” what had happened.

“It must be American hackers who did this, right?”, some Weibo commenters wrote, putting in a sarcastically smiling emoji, with others adding: “No, the aliens did this – it must have been the aliens!”

Others wrote that the situation at hand should be simple to figure out: “There is no way that this is an oversight or a data error. If you want to know who did this, look at who or which department has the authority to manage both epidemic prevention measures as well as finance affairs.”

Many comments also showed a sense of disillusionment with how China’s Covid management affects the people: “After seeing the chaos during the Shanghai lockdown, this does not even surprise me anymore,” one person wrote on Weibo: “All we can do is pray that it won’t happen to us.”

“Why is Henan’s “messy Red Code” incident so extremely vile and scary? Because once a person or institution holding public power looks at you in a bad light, they can give you a Red Code and take you away, in the name of legality. This is the evil that comes from unmonitored power,” one blogger from Anhui wrote.

Other people also worried about foreign media reporting on this issue, saying this incident is being used to cast China in a bad light while local authorities are to blame: “We should unify the Health Code system into a national system in order to avoid this from happening again.”

According to Chinese state media reports, the case has now been forwarded to the Health Commission of Henan Province for further investigation.

We will keep tracking upcoming developments. Meanwhile, check out our other reports on trending topics relating to China’s banking and finance here. For more about Covid-related trending topics, check here.

By Manya Koetse
With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Image via Weibo

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References (all other sources included in hyperlinks)

Lee, Amanda. 2022. “Rural Banks Freeze Customers’ Accounts.” South China Morning Post, May 31.

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China Digital

From Teacher to Livestreamer: Ecommerce Move is Game Changer for China’s New Oriental Education

New Oriental is going from classroom to e-commerce. Online shopping has never been more educational.

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After laying off 60,000 staff last year, Chinese private education company New Oriental is now offering unexpected new employment opportunities for teachers in the livestream market. Changing e-commerce channels into virtual classrooms, New Oriental has hit the sweet spot with Chinese netizens.

Last year, an unprecedented crackdown on China’s private education sector left many teachers unemployed and worried about their future.

China’s so-called ‘double reduction’ (双减) policy was announced in August of 2021 and targeted “excessive homework” and off-campus tutoring for students in the mandatory nine-year education system. The new regulations imposed strict sanctions on existing private education institutions, forcing them to register as non-profit organizations. Foreign investment in the private tutoring sector was also banned.

One of the companies that was hit particularly hard by this policy is New Oriental (新东方), the largest provider of private educational services in China. Following the crackdown, the company suffered huge losses and dismissed 60,000 employees.

Facing the new regulations, including the ban on for-profit tutoring in subjects on the school curriculum, New Oriental tried to keep its head above water by exploring new markets and ideas within the private education sector. For example, the company launched a special program to train parents on how to tutor their K-12 children themselves. New Oriental called it their “excellent parenting” (优质父母) training class.

Now, nearly a year later, another initiative by New Oriental has become an online hit. Inspired by the success of livestream e-commerce in China, the tutoring company started its own livestream channels. Although New Oriental already introduced its e-commerce business in late 2021, with founder Yu Minhong (俞敏洪) sometimes hosting the sessions himself, it had not been as much of an online success until it recently introduced bilingual livestream e-commerce sessions.

Now, tutors-turned-sellers are teaching viewers English – or sometimes other subjects – while selling (agricultural) products via the Douyin app. Whether they are selling fruit, rice, or even shrimp, New Oriental’s livestream hosts are grabbing every opportunity to teach their viewers a new word or concept, often using a whiteboard to introduce new vocabulary.

Whatever they’re selling, New Oriental’s livestream hosts make sure it’s educational.

One reason for New Oriental becoming a viral hit is because of Dong Yuhui (董宇辉), who is one of the experienced teachers now selling products online. Dong’s bilingual livestreams are particularly successful among viewers because of his enthusiasm, fluency in English, witty jokes, personal stories, and talent for singing.

Teacher Dong recently had a breakthrough moment with his June 10th livestream, during which he sold bags of rice using English. He has since attracted over nine million viewers. While thanking all viewers for their support in a recent Weibo post, Dong described himself as a “ordinary peasant boy.”

Dong Yuhui (董宇辉) is one of the livestreamers that have turned New Oriental’s e-commerce into a viral hit.

Besides Dong, there are also other popular hosts. English teachers Ming Ming, Yoyo, and Dun Dun are all loved by viewers for their charm and wit.

Although various kinds of social e-commerce categories are particularly popular in China, this new phenomenon of combining education + e-commerce + livestream is appreciated by many netizens who like to learn something while being entertained and perhaps also buying something. “I don’t know whether to place an order or to make notes,” has become a popular comment. Another commenter said: “As a kid I took your class, and now I buy your goods.”

Others say that they like the calm way in which the livestreams are presented, posing a stark contrast to other livestreams where the hosts are hyping up products and urging people to buy fast and buy more.

On June 15th, news came out that New Oriental’s stocks had surged by more than 25% following its livestreaming success.

Although some Weibo users predict that this is just a temporary trend, others think that the educational livestream model is here to stay: “New Oriental really started a new business venture, and I’m learning a lot through their livestream sessions.”

By Manya Koetse
With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Image via Weibo

Read related article: China’s Crackdown on Tutoring Schools: Concerned Parents and Teachers on Weibo

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