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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

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China Books & Literature

Nineteen Eighty-Four Turns 70: Orwellian China and Orwell in China

“We still need independent, courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”

Manya Koetse

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George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four turned seventy this week. For a country that is labeled ‘Orwellian’ so often, it is perhaps surprising that the modern classic, describing a nightmarish totalitarian state, is well-read within the People’s Republic of China and is not banned from its bookstores.

“Big Brother is Watching You” is the sentence that people around the world have come to know through the novel 1984 or Nineteen Eighty-Four, that turned 70 this week.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel about a nightmare future in the year 1984. It takes place in a totalitarian state where the Party is central to people’s everyday lives and where propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, and manipulation of the past are ubiquitous.

The book revolves around Winston Smith, a citizen of London, Oceania, who works at Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) and who secretly hates the society he lives in with its all-controlling Party, the ‘Big Brother’ leader, and the Thought Police.

Smith is critical of the workings of the Party and the lies it imposes, which then pass into history and become ‘truth’; as the Party slogan goes: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

 

“Orwellian China”

 

There is probably no other country in the world that has been described as “Orwellian” in English-language media as often as China has over the past few years. According to Google Trends, ‘China’ currently is one of the most related topics people in the US are searching for when they type in the word ‘Orwellian’ on the search engine.

The topic recently most associated with Orwell’s novel is that of China’s Social Credit System. In October of 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence addressed China’s nascent Social Credit System in a speech on China, calling it “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life” (Whitehouse.gov).

Since then, George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four have been used more often to describe developments in China.

‘Orwellian’ and ‘China’ come up with more than 28,000 results in Google News alone, the term often being used with any PRC news that relates to technology, government control, and propaganda.

Ironically, many of the news reports addressing ‘Orwellian China’ and its Social Credit System (SCS) are, in the Orwellian tradition, spreading misinformation themselves, conflating different issues or presenting speculation as fact – see some examples of speculative reporting on the SCS in this list.

But also when reporting on China’s growing mass camera surveillance, the Xinjiang internment camps, the launch of the ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ [Xuexi Qiangguo] app, or the increasing use of facial recognition, the comparison to George Orwell’s 1949 classic is everywhere in the English language media world today.

 

一九八四: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in China

 

For a country that is labeled ‘Orwellian’ so often, it is perhaps surprising that Nineteen Eighty-Four is actually not censored or banned in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Since the first PRC edition of the novel was published in 1979, it has become a famous and well-read work that is available for purchase in Chinese or English in all big bookstores in Chinese cities or online via e-commerce sites as Taobao.com.

The famous sentence “Big Brother is Watching You” translates to “Lǎo dàgē zài zhùshìzhe nǐ” (“老大哥在注视着你”) in Mandarin, and often pops up on social media, together with terms such as “doublethink” (shuāngchóng sīxiǎng, 双重思想) or “Thought Police” (sīxiǎng jǐngchá 思想警察).

On Douban, an influential web portal that allows users to rate and review books, films, etc, various editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four (most of them translated by Dong Leshan 董乐山) have been rated with a 9.3 or higher by thousands of web users.

Reading 1984, by Weibo user @耀离Pinus.

“I like this book, it’s just a bit too dark for me,” some reviewers write, with others just saying the book is “very scary,” or seeing some resemblance with the classic works of Chinese authors such as Wang Xiaobo or Lu Xun.

WeChat blog Vopoenix recently stressed the importance of Nineteen Eighty-Four, writing that the novel is not anti-socialism per se: “What Orwell really opposes is fascism, totalitarianism, and nationalism (..), what he really supports is political democracy and social justice.”

70 years later, totalitarianism still has not disappeared, the blog writes: “(..) instead, it has evolved with the times in a more secret way (..). We still need independent, keen and courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”

One Douban reviewer writes about their thoughts after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, saying: “What scares me is that sometimes people will ridicule North Korea for being so shut off from the world, but what about us? We’re like frogs at the bottom of a well, but the scary thing is, we don’t even know we’re in the well.”

 

“Just a work of fiction to Chinese”?

 

Public sentiments about the 70-year-old Nineteen Eighty-Four novel bearing a resemblance to (present-day) China are seemingly growing stronger on Chinese social media recently. The book appears in online comments and discussions on a daily basis.

“I finished reading the book today,” one Weibo commenter writes: “The biggest thought I had is: this book is very suitable for Chinese people to read.”

“I can now imagine what those ten years were like,” one Douban user posts, referring to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Nineteen Eighty-Four is the first satirical book I’ve read that comes close to the situation in China. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean,” another reader writes.

Different from English-language (social) media, Chinese commenters are not mentioning the book in relation to the country’s Social Credit System at all, but in relation to the heightened censorship that China has recently been seeing in light of the China-US trade war, the Tiananmen anniversary, and the Hong Kong protests.

One Weibo blogger writing a critique about the growing “bizarreness” of the “elephant in the room” (referring to all those big China-related issues that cannot be discussed on social media due to censorship) attracted the attention of Chinese netizens earlier this week (see the full translation of post here).

Many commenters spoke about the Weibo post in relation to Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially when the post addressing the censorship was censored itself.

Some commenters are speculating that Orwell’s novel might one day be banned in China.

Others also wrote that it seemed “like a miracle” that the book was not banned in China, and some suggested it might still happen in the future.

“It will be forbidden very soon,” one Weibo commenter speculates.

“The future is becoming more difficult, really,” one netizen recently wrote: “It’s nearing 1984 (一九八四), and [we] might not be able to see it later.”

But, in Chinese online media, Nineteen Eighty-Four is by no means only mentioned in relation to China. There are also those blogs or news articles that mention the Orwellian aspects of the story of Edward Snowden, or connect Orwell to Trump’s America.

In late 2018, state tabloid Global Times denounced the ubiquitous Western media reports on “Orwellian China.” Author Yu Jincui wrote:

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic to Westerners, but it is just a work of fiction to Chinese and they are fed up with Orwellian style preaching from Western elites. This kind of conversation will lead nowhere.”

But many netizens do not agree with the fictional part. “Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a work of fiction, it is a record of our future,” one Weibo user writes.

“Is Big Brother watching me?” others wonder.

“The first time I read it, I just read it,” another Douban user says: “The second time I read it, I really started to understand. Here’s to George Orwell!”

Despite all speculation on social media, there are no indications that Nineteen Eighty-Four will be banned from China any time soon.

For now, even 70 years after its first publication and 40 years after its first Chinese translation, readers in the People’s Republic can continue to devour and discuss Orwell’s classic work and the mirror it holds up to present-day China, America, Europe, and the world today.

By Manya Koetse

PS: Some recommended reading on Social Credit in English:

* Creemers, Rogier. 2018. “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control.”May 9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3175792.

* Dai, Xin. 2018. “Toward a Reputation State: The Social Credit System Project of China.” June 10, available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3193577 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3193577.

* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “China through a glass, darkly.” China Law Translate, Dec 24 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/seeing-chinese-social-credit-through-a-glass-darkly/?lang=en [24.5.18].

* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “Giving Credit 2: Carrots and Sticks.” China Law Translate, Dec 15 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/giving-credit-2-carrots-and-sticks/?lang=en [27.5.18].

* Horsley, Jamie. 2018. “China’s Orwellian Social Credit Score Isn’t Real.” Foreign Policy, Nov 16 https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/16/chinas-orwellian-social-credit-score-isnt-real/ [10.6.19].

* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Insights into the Social Credit System on Chinese Online Media vs Its Portrayal in Western Media.” What’s on Weibo, Oct 30 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/insights-into-the-social-credit-system-on-chinese-online-media-and-stark-contrasts-to-western-media-approaches/

* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Open Sesame: Social Credit in China as Gate to Punitive Measures and Personal Perks.” What’s on Weibo, May 27 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/open-sesame-social-credit-in-china-as-gate-to-punitive-measures-and-personal-perks/.

* Kostka, Genia. 2018. “China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval” SSRN, July 23. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3215138 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3215138 [29.10.18].

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China Insight

Chinese Blogger Addresses Weibo’s “Elephant in the Room”

A recent noteworthy Weibo post says intellectual discussions are dying on Chinese social media.

Manya Koetse

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A recent popular post on Weibo suggests that intellectual discussions are dying on Weibo and that Chinese web users can no longer ignore ‘the elephant in the room,’ triggering discussions on the status quo of social media in China.

Recently, a post by one popular Weibo blogger has attracted the attention of Chinese netizens.

On June 6, blogger ‘V2’ [alias], who often changes Weibo accounts, wrote about censorship on Chinese social media and ‘the elephant in the room.’

The post started making its rounds this week shortly after a severe crackdown on Chinese social media during the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, while protests in Hong Kong over the extradition bill were also taking off.

The poster, who has over 12270 fans on Weibo, wrote the following post [translation by What’s on Weibo]:

 

The intellectual density on Weibo is getting lower and lower. Scrolling through my timeline has already become somewhat worthless. One reason for that is temporary. This month they started to close down on overseas IP addresses, for example.

Another reason is more long term. Intellectuals around the world are increasingly focusing on China issues, from international relations scholars to economists to lawyers. There are already enough discussions about China to fill entire libraries with, and it’s rapidly increasing; this period is a happy time for China watchers, with new reports and comments coming out every day.

But all these hot issues (including the Belt & Road Initiative, the modernization of the army, the future of Taiwan, IP theft, and the China-US trade war) are like an elephant in the room on Weibo.

We can’t watch them, we can’t discuss them. But because this elephant is getting bigger and bigger, ignoring its presence in this room is getting increasingly strange.

This strange feeling reached a peak these days [addressing June 4th, the commemoration of Tiananmen]. The whole world was discussing China, but China was like a tranquil lake. The top trending topic here was Produce Camp 2019 [a Chinese reality show]. Some people, including me, were silenced, while the rest was excited to talk about celebrities smoking, getting married, getting divorced or cheating – pretending that these topics are really worth discussing.

The truth is, that these are the only topics that are allowed to be discussed.

Reviewing the parallel world of millions of people, Weibo has become a crowded place within a tiny snail shell.”

 

Since its publication on June 6th, this post received more than 22700 shares, 15500 likes, and hundreds of comments, with the post especially gaining traction since June 10.

 

I want to see more, I want to think more, I want to express more.

 

Among hundreds of commenters, many people agreed with ‘V2,’ writing: “Even the early rulers in Rome knew that if they’d give the people enough bread to eat and the entertainment of an arena, they wouldn’t be bothered about the rest.”

Others commented: “Actually, people do want to discuss these issues, but how can we when the news sources are blocked?”

“This has really become more of an entertainment app. It’s no longer a place to share news and knowledge, nor a place for open debate.”

“I want to go to a wider place, I want to access more information, I want to see more, I want to think more, I want to express more,” one commenter from Beijing writes.

“Not everything you read outside of the wall [Great Firewall] is true and Western media have been demonizing us for quite some time. But inside the wall, young people only pay attention to who is marrying who and who is divorcing now and this kind of entertainment news. They are numb; the intellect of the people is not developing.”

“We’re pretending everything is going well,” another person says: “and [we’re] creating a utopia that is isolated from the world.”

 

Just because it doesn’t exist on Weibo, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

 

But some also disagreed with the critical post.

“Why don’t you see that Weibo is just a small part of life?”, one commenter writes: “Just because it doesn’t exist on Weibo, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Don’t Chinese intellectuals pay attention to the issues you just mentioned? Weibo’s audience is really wide, but it is also quite narrow.”

Other commenters also suggest that the author’s expectations of Weibo are “too high”:

“Weibo was meant for entertainment, it’s not necessarily a news platform. The news about Hong Kong [protests] was reported on various websites. What is this blogger talking about, and then all these strange comments? As if we’re just foolishly spending our days on Weibo without having any other information channels; as if all the people in this country are locked in a dark room? Stupid.”

“It’s not the room that’s dark,” one person writes: “It’s the people who are blind.”

 

Viewing the sky from the bottom of the well.

 

There are also commenters who defend the strict control of Chinese social media, writing: “China has the largest population in the world. Think about it. Public opinion is really important. Isn’t a stable popular sentiment more important than confronting people with terrible incidents? If 1.3 billion people don’t trust their government, what kind of chaos do you think the country will end up in?”

Others jokingly say: “You can discuss these taboo topics all you want, I still am more interested in the latest celebrity divorce!”

One Weibo commenter uses a Chinese idiom to convey his thoughts, writing: “I’m just viewing the sky from the bottom of the well here.”

Despite the critique of the blogger on the decline of more intellectual discussions on Weibo, their post shows that there still seems to space for some deeper discussions on Weibo. At the time of writing, the post has attracted over 4000 comments and counting.

Update June 11, 2019:

As some commenters in the thread already feared, this post has now been deleted.

By Manya Koetse

Featured image by 广博郝. Featured image not related to the blogger in this article.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

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