BEIJING — She was a promising young student of Chinese literature with sterling grades and an industrious work ethic. But in 1998, during her sophomore year at one of China’s most prestigious universities, Gao Yan was raped by a professor, her friends and relatives say, and soon after she killed herself.
Now, on the 20th anniversary of her death, Ms. Gao’s story has become a rallying cry for China’s fledgling #MeToo movement, inspiring calls for the government to do more to prevent sexual assault and harassment.
China has so far greeted the #MeToo movement with caution, seemingly out of concern that it could threaten stability in the country’s male-dominated halls of power.
But in recent days, millions of people have shared Ms. Gao’s story online, even as the government has deployed censors to stamp it out.
Ms. Gao’s classmates brought the case back into the public sphere when they recently posted remembrances describing how she had told them that a professor at Peking University at the time, Shen Yang, forced her to have sex. Ms. Gao also told friends that Mr. Shen had spread rumors that she had a mental illness.
Mr. Shen has denied the accusations.
Many people have held up the case as an example of the abuse and discrimination women in China experience.
“The hidden victims are inspired by the promise of justice and have become brave enough to speak up,” said Zoe Chen, 24, a student activist in Dalian, a northeastern city.
The widespread anger over the case has brought unusually swift action. Several universities in recent days condemned Mr. Shen, who currently teaches at Nanjing University in eastern China.
Peking University, where Mr. Shen taught until 2011, vowed over the weekend to do more to prevent sexual harassment, saying it had “zero tolerance” for violations of students’ rights. The university also revealed that it had given a warning to Mr. Shen over suspicion of inappropriate behavior after the police investigated the case in 1998.
Student activists said they were pleased that the case had resonated so widely. But they said universities needed to give students more of a say in determining how sexual harassment and assault are reported on campus, and to better train professors in appropriate conduct with students.
“Merely resolving one or two specific cases is meant to gag the public,” said Zheng Xi, 30, an activist in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
Ms. Zheng said that since Ms. Gao’s death, Peking University had “shown no sense of introspection about the unequal power dynamics between students and teachers.”
While the #MeToo movement has struggled to gain wide traction in China, in large part because of the governing Communist Party’s tight control of civil society, universities have proved to be an exception.
In recent months, students have used social media to accuse deans and professors of misbehavior, resulting in several high-profile firings. Sympathetic faculty members have signed petitions vowing a zero-tolerance stance toward sexual assault.
Zhang Yiwu, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Peking University, said the rise of the #MeToo movement in the United States had pushed China to tackle the problem of sexual harassment.
“We were ignorant of sexual harassment,” he said. “Now we know this issue better. We are learning from the Americans.”
Ms. Gao’s classmates have been pressing for justice since she died. As Chinese families gathered last week to celebrate Qingming, a festival for remembering the dead, one, Li Youyou, posted a widely shared essay in which she criticized Mr. Shen for not apologizing.
“Twenty years have passed,” Ms. Li wrote. “Your constant lies and crimes should be put to an end.”
The essay spread quickly across the internet and was covered widely in the Chinese news media. On Monday, Caixin, a prominent Chinese news site, reported that another former student, Xu Hongyun, had accused Mr. Shen of sexual harassment. The article was quickly deleted.
Ms. Gao’s parents have also spoken out in recent days. In one video, her mother, Zhou Shuming, read a letter her husband had written. “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.”
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