Twenty-one women have accused the principal of an influential acting school in Beijing of sexual abuse over a period of 15 years, in one of the biggest #MeToo cases in China.
They said Du Yingzhe, the 40-year-old head of the school Ying Lu Zhan Tai, used his influence to coerce students and staff members into sex. The school prepares high school seniors for the public entrance exam of Chinese film and arts colleges and has helped many enter the country’s top film and drama academies. Most of the alleged victims were minors at the time.
“Du exploited our fears and anxiety as teenage girls, who left our homes for the first time to prepare for the art exam,” Shi Ziyi, an influencer and a freshman at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, wrote in a social media post on Monday accusing Du of exploiting his students. “He insinuated that by sleeping with him, we could enter good universities, be approved by the entertainment industry and achieve our dreams.”
“He boasted that he has slept with more than a hundred students and even called himself the godfather of China’s film industry,” Shi added.
Following her public accusation, 19 former students or staff have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and exploitation. In a social media post on Tuesday, they described a pattern of abuse enabled by Du’s stature in the school. Six of the accusers used their real names in the statement while the others were anonymous.
And in a separate post this week, Dong Shuang, a novelist, accused Du of raping her when they were both students at the Beijing Film Academy in 2005.
The allegations have attracted widespread concern online, with posts with a related hashtag gaining more than 20 million views on social media platform Weibo by Thursday.
The case stands out in terms of the number of alleged victims who have spoken up, in a country where the state regularly suppresses feminist activism and where nationalists often attack those defending women’s rights because they see it as promoting Western values and thus unpatriotic.
As the accusations mounted, Du was detained for a criminal investigation, police in Beijing said Thursday.
“He cast himself as a powerful man in the industry. It was implied that unless you submitted to him, you would not be able to pass the exam,” one of the accusers, a former student of Du, told VICE World News, requesting anonymity to protect her privacy.
Like most students, she lived on campus at the time. She said Du touched her inappropriately around her neck and breasts on several occasions, and repeatedly demanded to know if she was a virgin.
She recalled having to watch explicit films in class or as homework, including The 120 Days of Sodom, Caligula and Lust, Caution. Some students were also given assignments where they had to write about their sexual experiences.
“I was only 16 and 17 years old at the time. He kept brainwashing us into thinking we have to be as open-minded about sex as him in order to enter prestigious art schools,” said the former student, who is now in her late twenties. “Looking back, I realized he was just trying to normalize his behavior.”
Her experience matched the accounts of other former students and staff published on both Weibo and WeChat on Tuesday. Another woman confirmed her allegation as detailed in the post with VICE World News, but refused to say more.
In the post, a former student said Du forced her to wear a fishnet sweater with only nipple covers underneath for an audition and felt her up while pretending to adjust the nipple covers. Another student said that, as a punishment for not submitting her assignment on time, Du pulled down her and her classmate’s pants, drew turtles on their exposed bottoms, and then took pictures.
“As students, we could only follow the orders of our teacher. Girls from one class after another suffered the same assaults, yet could only choose to stay silent,” wrote a student who said she received unwanted sexual advances from Du.
A former staff member said she shared a hotel room with Du during a layover on a business trip. She said Du climbed into her bed in the middle of the night and would not let go of her. She managed to fight him off in the end.
Another former staff member said she was assaulted by Du nearly a decade ago without detailing how. “Until today, I never realized so many other girls have fallen victim to him. I always thought I fell for it because I was stupid,” she wrote. “I really regret not speaking up earlier.”
In response to the allegations, Du said his “teaching methods” were controversial, without addressing specific accusations. “Naive, innocent students would not be able to compete against those who understand the world of adults,” he wrote in a social media post on Monday.
As more allegations surfaced, Du’s attitude shifted. In a second statement in the same week, he apologized to “those he had hurt,” but described the accusations as “exaggerated and inaccurate.” He admitted to “breaking teacher-student boundaries,” but said he hoped his students would understand that he meant well. His school did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It is the second #MeToo scandal to rock the entertainment industry in a week. Zhao Weixian, a student at the Beijing Film Academy and a former student of Du, was recently accused of taking inappropriate photos of dozens of female classmates and stealing their private photos from their online storage accounts. The academy has pledged to investigate, while authorities detained Zhao on Thursday.
Sui Ning-xin, a former student who helped collect and compile the accounts against Du, said he wanted to expose Du’s behavior because he feels responsible for failing to protect his peers. He said he kept his silence at the time even though he knew Du was pressuring his female peers into sex. “I was consumed by regret and guilt over the past few years,” Sui said.
Sui said the revelations in the last week only represent the tip of the iceberg.
A student at the school in 2019, Sui said several of his female classmates came to him after they were molested. He was aware of at least 20 victims in his class, which had more than a hundred students. “He’s wily and knew whom to target. He picked on girls who seemed more impressionable and did not touch those who have a strong family background,” Sui told VICE World News.
VICE World News found that as early as 2020, anonymous users on the Quora-like social media platform Zhihu have urged girls not to apply for Du’s school, saying he had a reputation for harassing female students.
Sui and several accounts also pointed to Chen Xin, Du’s wife and a teacher at the school, as an accomplice. Chen allegedly helped lure students to the apartment or hotel rooms she shared with Du and intentionally left them alone. Many described going great lengths and finding excuses to avoid such encounters.
While Du helped found the school in 2007, his alleged misbehavior dated back to 2005.
Dong, the novelist, knew Du from the Beijing Film Academy then, when he was the boyfriend of her dorm mate and frequently visited their dorm, she wrote. But he once forced himself on her at his apartment, she said, and she kept it to herself and took pains to avoid being with him alone since then. However, in another instance, Du broke into a room she was sharing with another girl, stripped off his clothes and lay on top of her. She escaped the scene and called the police, she wrote in a Weibo post.
“I regret not exposing his crimes earlier,” she wrote. “I hope this is not too late.”
Some of the alleged victims are collecting evidence in the hope of taking Du to court. But the former student who spoke to VICE World News said it would be a difficult path. “These allegations are very difficult to prove, especially since it happened so long ago,” she said, adding that she fears a blowback for going public.
CHINA'S #METOO ICON XIANZI WITH HER SUPPORTERS BEFORE A HEARING. Photo: NOEL CELIS/AFP
In China, calling out sexual assault can come at a huge personal cost to survivors.
Just last month, China dismissed a landmark #MeToo case—in which a former state television intern, known as Xianzi, had accused a star television host of groping her—citing the lack of evidence. Xianzi has since been attacked online by trolls and had her Weibo account suspended, severing her ties with her supporters. Last year, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view after she leveled sexual assault allegations against a former senior leader. Sophia Huang, a feminist activist who kickstarted China’s own #MeToo reckoning, has been detained for a year over subversion charges and held incommunicado.
But the former student said Du remains their biggest source of fear. “Even till today, we are very scared of him and we are worried he would retaliate against us for speaking up. That is the shadow he has cast on us.”