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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 Digital

Key Players, Digital Trends & Deep Dives: China Internet Report 2021

SCMP just launched its latest China Internet Report. (And What’s on Weibo readers can get a 30% discount on the Pro Edition!)

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As China’s tech sector has been facing an ongoing crackdown by Beijing regulations, a lot has been changing in the country’s digital environment over the past year. The new China Internet Report 2021 by SCMP gives an overview of the latest trends and developments.

When it comes to China’s online landscape, nothing ever stays the same. Over the past year, political, economic, and social developments and measures have once again changed the Chinese digital environment.

Giving a comprehensive overview of the key leaders and major trends dominating the Chinese online field, South China Morning Post (SCMP) issued its fourth annual China Internet Report.

China’s internet population has now risen to 989 million – last year’s report indicated an internet population of 904 million. By now, there are 853 million mobile payment users, which indicates that over 86% of the entire mobile internet population uses mobile as a way to pay.

As China’s internet population is still growing, and new online startups are still popping up every day, there have been tightening regulations on multiple fronts.

As laid out in SCMP’s report, regulations mainly focus on the four areas of antitrust, finance, cybersecurity, and data privacy. Regulatory actions targeting the monopolistic behaviours of China’s biggest internet companies are still ongoing, and the new Data Security Law came into effect on September 1st of this year.

While Chinese tech companies are seeing increased scrutiny at home, they have also been facing intensifying geopolitical tensions between China and other countries. Over the past year, the various probes and shutdowns into Chinese companies by countries such as the US and India have meant a serious blow to the market share of Chinese apps.

Meanwhile, the SCMP report highlights the trend of various older and newer Chinese (e-commerce) apps “downplaying” their Chinese origins when entering foreign markets. Shein is a good example of this development, but other players including Zaful, Urbanic, and Cider are also experiencing more success outside of China while not explicitly marketing themselves as Chinese e-commerce apps.

Another noteworthy trend explained in the new report is how China’s shifting demographics are creating new niche segments to compete over. The COVID-19 crisis is partially a reason why China has seen an increase in senior internet users, with an increasing number of online products and content catering to the elderly.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) even issued special guidelines earlier this year for web pages and mobile apps to carry out so-called “elderly friendliness modifications.” Since this user group is still expected to see significant growth, the “silver economy” is an area that will only become more important in the years to come.

To check out all the main trends for 2021, China’s latest internet statistics, its top tech competitors, internet companies, and more, here’s a link to the free report.

The free report is 55 pages long and gives an overview of China’s latest internet numbers and players, covers the top cross-sector trends for 2021, including the tightening regulations and the bumpy road ahead for China’s tech IPOs.

The Pro Edition of China’s Internet Report 2021, also launched by SCMP, is 138 pages long and provides a deep-dive into ten relevant sectors – featuring insightful and useful analysis, data, and case studies relating to China’s e-commerce market, content & media, gaming, blockchain, fintech, online education, healthtech, smart cars, 5G, and Artificial Intelligence.

The China Internet Report Pro Edition is priced at US$400, but the team at SCMP has kindly reached out and made it possible for us to offer a special 30% discount to What’s on Weibo readers.

You’ll get the discount by using the discount code: WHATSONWEIBO30, or by clicking this link that will automatically include your discount code.

By Manya Koetse

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Insight

Goodbye 996? Weibo Discussions on Changes in Overtime Work Culture

Beijing made it clear that working overtime is illegal, but netizens are concerned about the realities of changing working schedules.

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Many people are tired of being forced to log long hours, but are also worried about how a national crackdown on ‘996’ working culture could impact their workload and income.

In late August of 2021, China’s Ministry of Human Resources & Social Security (人社部) and the Supreme People’s Court issued a joint clarification on the country’s legal standards of working hours and overtime pay.

Their message was clear: the practices of ‘996’ (working 9am-9pm, six days per week) and ‘007’ (working 24 hours seven days per week, referring to a flexible working system worse than 996) are illegal, and employers are obliged to obey the national working-time regime.

On Weibo, China’s state broadcaster CCTV published a 10-minute long video illustrating the 10 typical cases of overtime work laid out by the ministry and the top court. The moment was marked as the first time for the state-owned broadcaster to publicly comment on overtime work practices.

The Weibo post pointed out that “striving for success is not a shield companies can use to evade legal responsibilities,” and made it clear that employees have the right to “say no to forced overtime.”

The topics of overtime work and China’s 996 work culture generated many discussions on Weibo, with the hashtag “Ministry of Human Resources & Social Security and the Supreme Court Clarify 996 and 007 Are Illegal” (#人社部最高法明确996和007都违法#) generating over 420 million views on the social media platform.

 
“Without implementation and enforcement, the law is useless”
 

The current labor law in China bars employees from working more than 44 hours a week, and any overtime work must be paid.

Although the 996 practice is technically prohibited by law, many companies still enforce the hours informally.

Many employees revealed online that, although the 996 practice is legally prohibited, they were nevertheless being assigned job tasks that exceeded the prescribed working hours.

“Just finished work,” one Weibo user (@介也没嘛) posted with this picture, showing it’s nearing 11PM.

“I wonder if the workload will decrease after all. If it doesn’t change, it means people will now have to work voluntarily,” one Weibo user commented.

People also indicated that, since the start of the pandemic, remote work has become a new norm. Many companies have moved from office to working at home, making it harder to draw the line between regular working hours and overtime hours.

“What really matters is whether working from home includes overtime hours,” one Weibo user wrote. Many netizens complained that their companies wouldn’t explicitly stipulate a 996 schedule; instead, most of them disguise the overtime hours as ‘voluntary’ work.


Many commenters say it takes more comprehensive legislation and tougher law enforcement to really solve the issue of overtime work.

“These regulations are good, but they are basically impossible to implement. Even if they ban ‘996’ and ‘007’ there is no way to regulate the so-called ‘voluntary work,’” one Weibo user wrote.

Some people said that their companies have various performance assessments and that they feared that refusing to work more hours would make them lose their competitive advantage: “The burn-out (内卷 nèijuǎn, ‘involution’) is severe. It is too difficult for us. I have only one day off during the week and I’m so tired,” one person commented.

 
“We don’t need those who comfortably work 8 hours”
 

China’s 996 work culture has been championed by tech leaders and denounced by workers for years, and it has become an unwritten standard – not just in the tech sector but also in other industries.

While working long hours has been ingrained in Chinese workplace culture since the early days of the country’s internet boom, it later also started to represent ‘a road to success’ for Chinese tech entrepreneurs.

Many Chinese netizens blame Alibaba’s Jack Ma for praising the ‘996’ work system. In 2019, Ma called the 12-hour working day a “huge blessing,” causing much controversy online. During his talk at Kyiv International Economic Forum, Ma said: “(..) ‘996 is the spirit that I encourage Alibaba people to follow. If you want to have a bright future, (..) if you want to be successful, you have to work hard.”

On another occasion, the tech mogul reportedly said: “If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why do you come to Alibaba? We don’t need those who comfortably work 8 hours.”

Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba Group described 996 as a ‘blessing’.

However, after the shocking death of one Chinese delivery man working for food delivery platform Ele.me and the widespread discussions about the ‘996 ICU’ project – which called on tech workers to add names and evidence of excessive hours to a ‘blacklist,’ – the 996 work culture has come under increased scrutiny.

Some people argue that the overtime culture is draining employees and creating an unhealthy work-life balance; others argue that they work for themselves and believe that putting in extra hours will eventually translate to individual success.

While economic growth has slowed down during the pandemic, most companies are persisting with long working hours because they are under pressure to achieve results.

According to an online survey conducted by an influential tech blogging account (@IT观察猿), more than one-third of participants claimed to have one day off per week, and more than one quarter claimed they didn’t have any weekend days off.

 
“The workload is the same, but the income has reduced”
 

Starting from August 1st, ByteDance, the Chinese company behind the popular short-form video app TikTok, dropped its ‘big and small week’ (大小周) – a schedule that previously required employees to work six days in a row every other week.

ByteDance is not the only Chinese tech company that has begun to cut back on its long working hours. More and more companies have decided to drop grueling work schedules.

Kuaishou, another Chinese short-form video app company, stopped scheduling weekend work in July. Since early June, Tencent – China’s largest game publisher – has encouraged people to clock out at 6 pm every Wednesday.

Although these changes seem to signal a positive development, there are also many people who do not support the new measures. When Bytedance announced the changes to its working schedule, news came out that one-third of the employees did not support the decision (#字节跳动1/3员工不支持取消周末加班#).

Those relying on overtime pay said abolishing overtime work will cut their take-home pay by around 20%. Indeed, the first pay-out after the new implementation at Bytedance showed an overall drop of 17% in employees’ wages.

“The workload is the same, but the income has reduced,” one Weibo commenter complained.

One trending discussion on Weibo focused on the question “Do companies need to make up for employees’ financial loss after the abolition of weekend work?” Many comments revealed the situation faced by thousands of struggling workers who value free time but value their income more.

Many on Weibo still wonder whether a company that abolishes ‘996’ will come up with an alternative to compensate those employees who will otherwise inevitably lose vital income.

By Yunyi Wang

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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