A Chinese academic has been suspended by his university after he advocated polygamy on his personal WeChat account, sparking a new discussion around China’s evolving attitudes towards sex.
Bao Yinan, a legal researcher at the prestigious East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, was accused by his employer of “making wrong statements”. The university has now suspended all his teaching activity and formed a “special working group” to investigate the matter, it said in a statement at the weekend.
According to Chinese media reports, Bao posted a series of entries on WeChat Moments – which can be viewed only by a chosen circle of friends on the app – saying that authorities “should give university professors special treatment, for example allowing them to have multiple spouses and provide them permanent subsidies”.
The remarks were initially made on his WeChat account while reposting an article about China’s fiercely competitive tenure system for young university academics. Some blamed this notorious system, in part, for an unrelated recent incident, in which a Shanghai university mathematics researcher killed a senior colleague, who had refused to renew his contact.
Bao, 34, who was educated in Britain and specialises in international maritime law, was also asked by his WeChat contacts at one point whether he agreed with teacher-student romances. He responded, jokingly: “I do not object to it … my goal this year is to find a girlfriend born after 2000.”
The details of Bao’s Wechat messages have triggered curiosity on the social media platform Weibo, where posts with a related hashtag have been viewed more than 31m times.
Opinions are split, with many supporting the university’s decision and criticising Bao’s remarks. “[It] proved again that if the ideological and political education is not in place, there will be endless disasters for the talents with high intelligence,” one commenter remarked.
A few observers defended the academic’s right to free thinking, however inappropriate his comments. “As a woman, I do not agree with his remarks, but as a matter of fact, an article or a remark is not illegal,” one wrote. She went on to suggest that social attitudes and regulations evolve, and that Bao’s treatment was unfair. “According to the [university’s] logic, while the one-child policy was still in place, should those academics who had suggested a two-child policy also be dismissed?”
Bao has now deleted his post, but he complained on his WeChat that he was pressured by his university to do so. The Guardian’s requests to interview both Bao and his university went unanswered.
Until the Chinese communists took power in 1949, bigamy, concubinage and child marriage were commonplace. In 1950, Beijing enacted a new law that outlawed these practices. The law also enforced monogamy in an effort to make women more equal to men in Chinese society.
Polygamy is no longer legal in China. Media regulators impose strict rules on discussions that could be deemed as “immoral” on radio, TV and in print, but discussions around the subject do occasionally appear on social media as well as in online outlets.
This month’s incident yet again raised a broader question about the limit of sexual freedom and citizens’ attitudes toward it in China, where rapid economic development and the ubiquity of the internet have upended many traditional social norms.
Last year, Yew-Kwang Ng, an economist at a top Shanghai university, proposed that women should be allowed to have more than one husband, in order to solve China’s imminent gender imbalance crisis. On Weibo, the hashtag on whether the government should allow polygamy has so far been viewed nearly 25m times.
In 2015, another academic in Zhejiang province, near Shanghai, suggested the government should allow same-sex marriage. He also urged lower-income Chinese men to find a wife together, claiming this could solve China’s problem of having too many bachelors. The suggestion drew immediate criticism in China and abroad.
And in 2010, a 53-year-old computer science professor who went by the moniker Roaring Virile Fire in online chatrooms was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for organising orgies in his two-bedroom flat in eastern Chinese city of Nanjing.
The authorities called such a lifestyle choice “crowd licentiousness”, but the professor defended himself, saying it was purely his personal business. “Privacy needs to be protected,” he said at the time. “Marriage is like water … you have to drink it. Swinging is like wine. Some people feel it’s delicious the first time they try it, so they keep drinking. Some people try it and think it tastes bad, so they never drink it again. It’s completely voluntary. No one is forcing you,” he added.