During Qing Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Day, a woman named Li Youyou posted a short online account of her friend’s suicide 20 years earlier.
Gao Yan, she said, had been a happy, conscientious undergraduate at Peking University in the mid-1990s.
One of her teachers Shen Yang, now 62, had shown a special interest in her, inviting her round for chats about writing and linguistics.
One night he raped her and when rumours began to circulate that the two were romantically involved she took her own life, unable to bare whispers – put about by Shen – that she was mentally unstable and had seduced him.
“Gao was less than half your age… Like a wolf you took her virginity, her youth and her dreams,” wrote Li.
She then called on Shen to apologise to Gao’s parents who were now “old and sick”.
The article, which was widely picked up by the media, has fed into an ongoing debate about abuse of power in Chinese higher education.
In December Yang Baode, a PhD student from Xi’an’s Jiao Tong University drowned himself after months of abuse by his academic supervisor, who made him clean her apartment, wash her car and play mahjong with her.
The suicide seems to have been triggered when the supervisor refused to sign papers that would have allowed Yang to study abroad, his girlfriend said.
Then in March, a Master’s student at Wuhan University’s School of Automation called Tao Chongyuan jumped off the sixth floor of his dormitory building.
Tao’s family and friends claimed he had also been made to carry out domestic chores, including cooking and laundry, for his supervisor Wang Pan.
Wang was alleged to have insisted that Tao call him father and applied for a scholarship on Tao’s behalf, which he then had to “donate” to Wang’s research institute.
Tao likewise wanted to transfer overseas but Wang refused to sign his application for government funding.
Tao’s final message to his mother was: “I can no longer tolerate this. I don’t know how to escape Wang Pan”.
In all three cases the teachers deny wrongdoing. Shen was given a demerit after Peking University’s enquiry into Gao’s death in 1998, but he kept his job and eventually took up posts at Nanjing University and Shanghai Normal University.
After Li’s recently published letter he was removed from his current position because he hadn’t declared the demerit when he was hired. Zhou and Wang have also been barred from supervising other graduate students.
Yet most people feel the responses have been insufficient and education professionals have been calling for an overhaul of the teacher-student relationship, which would put limits on the power of academic supervisors.
“It is an indisputable fact that a considerable number of postgraduate students are plagued by relationships with mentors,” complained ThePaper.cn. “In fact, being ‘controlled’ by a tutor is a very common phenomenon”.
Sohu News said academic supervisors often treat post-graduate students as personal secretaries, nannies or “slaves”, and one of its cartoons featured a mortar board attached to a ball and chain.
For Phoenix TV, the Confucian idea of the teacher as a father is partly to blame: “The traditional apprenticeship-style teacher-student relationship has a profound impact on the Chinese style of supervisor system – there is no ‘abuse of power’, only ‘absolute obedience’”.
Media commentaries stopped short of asking about the wider implications of this unappealing aspect of academic culture – such as how it must prove detrimental to Beijing’s goals of encouraging more creativity and innovation.
Students and family members have now taken matters into their own hands by staging protests outside the offices of the accused professors and pushing for meetings with university officials.
Several users of online forums like Zhihu have been encouraging people to make use of mysupervisor.org – a website created by a Chinese postgraduate in 2013 – to help students choose more beneficial supervisors abroad.
“To prevent tragedies from happening again, we need to disclose these monsters’ names bravely,” another added of the power-crazed academics at home.
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