Christina never expected her first job in China to devolve into a nightmare.
When she moved abroad from the U.S. at the end of 2017 to accept a teaching position at a renowned international primary and secondary school in a first-tier Chinese city, she hoped to find a refreshing life experience.
All went well until the fourth month. In March 2018, Christina was sexually assaulted by a male colleague. “He was physical, and it was not consensual,” Christina told Sixth Tone. The male colleague — also from the U.S. — had sexually harassed her before, she said, and one night he entered her dorm and assaulted her. To protect her privacy, Christina declined to give her full name.
A few days later, she reported the incident to her manager, a Westerner, but he had no idea what to do. So she went to the school’s principal, another Western man, who said the school had no policy for handling sexual assault. He asked Christina to give a written statement and suggest an appropriate punishment for the accused.
“It really alarmed me,” she said, “not only because there was nothing there to protect me, but also because [the principal] said there was nothing to protect the children.”
Anti-sexual harassment policies remain conspicuously absent from China’s schools and universities. “I have never heard of a domestic school being equipped with anti-sexual harassment precautions,” Liu Minghui, a law professor at China Women’s University in Beijing and an authority on sexual harassment, told Sixth Tone.
China’s international colleges — generally Chinese-owned institutes that benefit from heavy foreign investment, both in terms of funding and staffing — are no exception, according to Liu. Though they often market themselves as enclaves of Western educational values, international schools often fail to adhere to the same high standards when it comes to anti-sexual harassment policy and gender equality rules — or where policy is present, there are problems with its application.
A recent case that sparked a flurry of discussion on the Chinese internet involves Non Arkaraprasertkul — also known as Wang Guangliang — a prominent anthropologist and a frequent visiting scholar to China. On July 25, a first-person narrative published by Southern People’s Weekly accused 37-year-old Arkaraprasertkul of sexually abusing his girlfriend, who is referred to as “Yiting” in the article.
Though Arkaraprasertkul was not identified by name in the article, he was later outed by a group of volunteers who described him as a Chinese-Thai Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. In an article first published on social app WeChat, the volunteers, calling themselves only “concerned scholars,” said that university students and professors from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Australia had come to them with stories of sexual harassment by Arkaraprasertkul when he was visiting or teaching at their schools. When Sixth Tone contacted the volunteers, they refused to reveal their names, citing safety concerns.
On July 31, however, Arkaraprasertkul refuted all of the allegations made against him in response to a media outlet’s request for comment. He did the same in an email he sent to his accusers the same day — adding that he has “always supported human rights, equality of opportunity between genders” — and again in an email response to Sixth Tone on Tuesday.
An anonymous scholar who worked with Arkaraprasertkul at New York University Shanghai — a cooperation between NYU and East China Normal University — told Sixth Tone that she and several other female instructors reported Arkaraprasertkul to the school in February 2016 after hearing stories from a freshman of his inappropriate behavior toward students. The scholar did not want her name revealed for fear that it could impact her academic career.
“In March, when NYU Shanghai held an on-campus student recruitment event, he was still on the list of sample lecture instructors,” she said, referring to special classes that prospective students are invited to attend. The scholar further explained that although the school’s Office of Student Life had requested a list of names from her and talked to those students, she had heard nothing from the school in the months since. “I only learned from others that someone talked to him, and he deleted all the female students’ contacts on WeChat,” she said.
Non Arkaraprasertkul, a Chinese-Thai academic who was recently accused of sexual harassment by a group of ‘concerned scholars’ at NYU Shanghai, poses for a photo. From his LinkedIn account
When asked whether he had been the subject of such an investigation, Arkaraprasertkul told Sixth Tone that he did not “know the extent, purpose” of any questions regarding NYU Shanghai. He described his interactions with colleagues at NYU Shanghai as “minimum.”
In an email response to Sixth Tone last Thursday, Pu Zhendong, senior officer for media and news at NYU Shanghai’s University Communications department, said the school does not discuss specific cases or allegations made against its community members. Pu confirmed, however, that Arkaraprasertkul had completed his two-year contract in summer 2016.
Included with Pu’s response was a letter the school had sent to its staff and students on Aug. 8 that quoted anti-sexual harassment policies from both NYU and NYU Shanghai, and which said that all university community members “are strongly encouraged to report incidents of misconduct.” The letter affirmed Pu’s comment that the university would not discuss specific cases “before the process has been completed, or in cases in which the complainant preferred not to initiate a formal process.”
But many informants are too afraid to go through a formal process, said the professor, Liu, because they have little confidence in the offices tasked with handling complaints. “A lot of victims withheld their stories for many years because they were afraid of a hostile environment and a flawed mechanism,” she added.
Liu said NYU Shanghai should notify those who came forward of the investigation results. Sixth Tone was unable to verify whether the school had done so, or whether it had even conducted an investigation into Arkaraprasertkul’s conduct.
Visiting scholars transfer between programs and schools every few years, and so they’re often able to elude any unsavory allegations against them. “There is no law requiring one school to share information with the next school about whether the teacher has a history of sexual misconduct,” Liu explained.
Meanwhile, the scholar’s original school — Harvard, in Arkaraprasertkul’s case — should bear the responsibility of investigating and disciplining the accused, should an informant file a report with the school’s anti-sexual harassment committee, said Liu. Harvard’s anti-sexual harassment policy is not limited to its Cambridge campus: It applies wherever there is misconduct “in connection with a University or University-recognized program or activity.”
Amid China’s growing #MeToo movement, the country’s students and educators are becoming more aware of their choices, and what actions could be viewed as sexual harassment. On Monday, a female student from Shanghai Jiaotong University — one of China’s top higher education institutes — said she was harassed by an American student during a summer camp. She reported the incident to police and wrote directly to the summer camp’s partner university in the U.S., according to an article she posted anonymously on a friend’s WeChat public account. The man was detained for five days and made to write the woman an apology.
The attention Arkaraprasertkul’s case has brought has also prompted National Taiwan University to reconsider its decision to employ him: Students there have penned an open letter to protest Arkaraprasertkul’s hiring, and the school has said it will investigate. After leaving NYU Shanghai, Arkaraprasertkul worked at the University of Sydney for a year beginning in January 2017, and was about to begin his fellowship in Taiwan when the scandal broke.
“From the perspective of information-sharing, the #MeToo movement, through the use of new media, amplifies this kind of information to the world in a fraction of the time,” Liu said.
The male teacher in Christina’s case was never officially investigated, and in fact continues to work at the same school. Christina, who barely speaks Mandarin, found herself desperate for help as the school’s principal told her to “keep a lid” on what had happened, and as the police dismissed her case due to lack of evidence. Meanwhile, the school threatened to fire her, and refused to return her security deposit and pay her salary, when she said she couldn’t continue working alongside the teacher who had assaulted her.
“I picked up my life and moved to China for this job, at what I thought was a reputable international school,” she said. “It’s alarming and sad that vulnerable young teachers entrust their lives and careers to companies like this and are treated in such a way.”
If she ever teaches at a foreign institution again, Christina says, she will take precautions, like talking to her female colleagues and seeking out resources for expats who find themselves in similarly harrowing situations. But most importantly, she says, “I will have the school write a policy that protects its employees against such egregious behavior.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Backpacks with the New York University Shanghai logo are sold at the school’s gift shop in Shanghai, Oct. 14, 2014. Lü Yanwanqian/VCG)