A Sun Yat-sen University professor is facing allegations of sexual harassment from at least six women.
According to an article published by nonfiction platform The Livings on Sunday, ecology professor Zhang Peng had been given “a disciplinary punishment within the Party” in April after a freshman student accused him of sexual assault. Then in May, five more women — four students and a colleague — came forward with further allegations of misconduct during field trips, thesis consultations, and work activities, dating back years.
On Monday, an employee at the university’s publicity office surnamed Cai confirmed to Sixth Tone that Zhang had been disciplined in April but refused to disclose how he had been punished or what for. She also declined to comment on the other allegations.
Zhang — who, according to The Livings, is 40 and married — is listed on the Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU) website as a professor specializing in primatology who has had dozens of papers published in Science, Nature Communications, and other international journals. He has also been a visiting professor at overseas institutions including Kyoto University and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
One SYSU student, who used the pseudonym Chen Jing, told The Livings that Zhang had offered to take a walk with her while they were on a field trip researching macaques in January 2016. Chen thought Zhang was just being friendly but began to feel uncomfortable when Zhang started to comment on her appearance and touch her hair. Although she managed to put an end to the walk by rejoining her fellow students, Zhang later confronted her again and hugged her, resting his head on her breasts.
“I could not believe it,” Chen told The Livings. Other students alleged similar conduct during a field trip in 2015.
On May 4, five women formally reported their experiences to the SYSU Discipline Inspection and Supervision office. Among them was a female teacher who wrote that Zhang first sexually assaulted her in 2011 when she had just started her career at the university. The teacher said that Zhang had touched her legs and breasts while the two were taking an intercampus bus, and that the harassment lasted until 2017, when she got married.
According to Chen, school representatives then spoke to the accusers and Zhang, but Zhang denied all the allegations. After two months without a response, SYSU graduate Chen Hanyuan — a friend of Chen Jing’s — alerted media outlets to the case with the consent of the accusers.
“I was afraid that the school wanted to drag out the case, so I thought we should make the school pay attention by exposing the case to the media,” Chen Hanyuan told Sixth Tone.
Zhang did not reply to Sixth Tone’s email inquiry about the allegations, and by Monday morning, The Livings’ article was no longer available on its website.
Over 100 SYSU graduates and other university students signed an open letter published Monday that urged the school to investigate the allegations against Zhang.
The action is the latest in the movement that has swept across Chinese university campuses since late last year. Yet while the campaign has resulted in the dismissal or resignation of some offenders, the high-profile topic has also made school administrators nervous. According to The Livings’ article, anti-sexual harassment groups at SYSU were told that the topic was “too sensitive to be openly discussed.”
In her interview with The Livings, Chen Jing brought up a recent case in which a middle school student in Qingyang, in northwestern China’s Gansu province, jumped to her death. She left a suicide note saying that she had been sexually assaulted by her teacher and became depressed when authorities dismissed her case.
“Do we have to sacrifice our lives like the girl in Qingyang so that [Zhang’s] behavior will be judged as vicious?” Chen Jing asked. “What should we do?”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Zhang had published in Nature. He has published in Nature Communications.
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: People pass by the school motto of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2017. Aming/IC)