Leading Chinese academic suspended after harassment complaints from women students

Sun Yat-sen University removes professor from teaching and supervisory roles on ‘ethics’ violations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 2:14pm

A professor at one of China’s leading universities has been suspended from his teaching role after complaints by women students over “improper conduct”, a euphemism for sexual harassment.

Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou said on Tuesday that it had disciplined Zhang Peng for “violating a teacher’s professional code of ethics” after verifying two complaints by students.

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Zhang was given a warning in April after the university verified the first allegation made against him, according to a notice issued by the school on Tuesday.

 

The university received another complaint from a woman student in May and issued another warning to Zhang in June after verifying the claim, according to the university notice. It did not give details about the allegation, apart from saying they also involved other women students.

A meeting of the school’s administrators on July 2 decided that he would be suspended from all teaching and graduate supervision duties.

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The announcement also said that his honorary title of “Cheung Kong scholar”, awarded for academic distinction, would be revoked.

Zhang has not made any public comment on the matter and has yet to respond to the South China Morning Post’s requests for comment.

The professor’s faculty profile is still accessible on the university’s website, despite widespread coverage of the allegations in Chinese state media.

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He has had articles published in the International Journal of Primatology and was a former visiting professor at the universities of Kyoto and Wisconsin, according to his profile.

An open letter calling for the university to implement a sexual harassment policy was posted on the blogging platform Jianshu.com on Monday.

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It attracted more than 100 real name signatures from graduates of Sun Yat-sen and other universities before being taken down the next day, according to the FreeChineseFeminists network.

But activists published a new open letter on Weibo which had collected more than 290 signatures and was still up there on Wednesday evening.

The removal of the first petition highlights some of the difficulties students and activists face as they raise claims of sexual harassment and assault.

China has been swept by a wave of allegations from female students against teachers and university lecturers in recent months as the global #MeToo movement gains traction.

The student-led campaigns have sometimes resulted in disciplinary action against the alleged offenders such as Chen Xiaowu, who was fired by Beihang University in January, and Shen Yang, who was sacked by Shanghai Normal University and Nanjing University in April after allegations that he had raped a student at Peking University 20 years ago resurfaced.

But the topic has touched a raw nerve with the authorities and posts on the subject have frequently been censored on social media.

Chinese feminists said they were glad that the university had acted, but questioned why it had not directly used the term "sexual harassment" in its public statements. 

Activist Li Maizi posted a statement on her Weibo pages saying: "Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, why couldn’t they mention it?  I strongly call on [the university] to be a model, and establish an anti-sexual harassment committee."

Di Wang, a Chinese women's rights activist currently studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, said the university "treated this issue as a scandal and refused to use the term 'sexual harassment'". She said sexual harassment "is a symptom of misogyny. It is abuse of power. And our society cannot afford to always wait until the situation is getting worse or another person is getting harassed".