A 20-Year-Old Rape Case Inspired China’s #MeToo Movement

Gao Yan committed suicide in 1998. Twenty years later, her story is being used an example of abuse and discrimination faced by Chinese women.


The tragic story of a Chinese student, who committed suicide after her rape accusations against her university professor fell on deaf ears, has proven to be the voice of change, 20 years after her death.

Gao Yan was a literature student at Peking University when she was allegedly raped by her professor. She did not get justice during her life but on the 20th anniversary of her death, her story has inspired millions of women to rally for China’s #MeToo movement in the country’s largely male-dominated society.

Millions of people shared Gao’s story to raise voice for an issue that has not been addressed in China for the fear of destabilizing the society. The government has gone to lengths of censoring mentions of the campaign on social media.

The case was brought back to life by Gao’s friends as they shared remembrances for their late friend and made sure, this time, her story is heard. The posts described how professor Shen Yang forced her to have sex with him. He also spread rumors that she had a mental illness to debunk her claims of non-consensual sex.

Shen denies the allegations.

In 2018, Gao’s story is being used an example of abuse and discrimination faced by Chinese women.

“The hidden victims are inspired by the promise of justice and have become brave enough to speak up,” said Zoe Chen, a student activist in Dalian.

The outrage caused by the case has resulted in rare condemnation of sexual harassment by various universities. Many universities slammed Shen, who currently teaches at the Nanjing University in eastern China.

Peking University also released a statement where they condemned sexual harassment on campus and promised to promote “the construction of anti-sexual harassment system and conduct anti-sexual harassment education for teachers and students to jointly create a safe, harmonious, gender-equality campus environment.” The institute also revealed they issued a warning to Shen in 1998 after the police investigated the rape allegations against him.

Student activists say they are happy the case is getting the attention it deserved but also emphasized educating people about sexual harassment and assault. They demanded students get a better say in how to report such cases should they occur in institutions. Teachers also need to be trained about what behavior is considered appropriate when dealing with students.

“Merely resolving one or two specific cases is meant to gag the public,” said Zheng Xi, an activist in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

Zheng also criticized Peking University for its delayed response over Gao’s case.

“Peking University had shown no sense of introspection about the unequal power dynamics between students and teachers,” she said.

The Chinese government is notorious for curbing free speech. It has previously banned any mentions of people mocking President Xi Jinping when he announced an end to term limits for his presidency. The governing Communist party in China has also proved to be one of the biggest reasons the #MeToo movement has not garnered much attention nationwide.

However, Gao’s case is prompting a change in universities’ approach towards such accusations. Recently, many students have used social media platforms to report misconduct from deans and professors which surprisingly resulted in several high-profile firings. Teachers have vowed to a “zero-tolerance” policy against sexual harassment.

“We were ignorant of sexual harassment. Now we know this issue better. We are learning from the Americans,” said Zhang Yiwu, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Peking University, talking about the #MeToo movement initiated in America to give victims of sexual assault a platform to raise their voice.

Gao’s sexual misconduct case came to light when one of her former classmates, Li Youyou, posted an essay as China celebrated Qingming, a festival for remembering the dead. In the essay, Li criticized Shen for failing to apologize for his heinous crime. The essay was widely shared across Chinese news media.

“Twenty years have passed. Your constant lies and crimes should be put to an end,” she wrote.

A leading Chinese news site published an article claiming another student had accused Shen of sexual misconduct but the article was soon deleted.

Gao’s parents still grieve the loss of their young daughter. In one video, her mother, Zhou Shuming, read a letter written by her father, “Your mother and I were too careless and didn’t take good care of you,” the letter said. “My daughter, please forgive us in heaven.”

Thumbnail/Banner Credits: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

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