MeToo campaign embarks on an uphill journey in China
 
A picture shows the message Me Too on the hand of a protester during a gathering in Paris Photo: AFP
 
While the global “MeToo” movement started from film industry in the United States, the first shot of the campaign was fired in universities in China when a former graduate student of a university in Beijing posted her past experience of being sexually harassed by her professor went viral on social media earlier this month, following which students from nearly 50 universities have called for establishing mechanism in university to stop sexual harassment. But according to some experts, the campaign could be a long and tough journey, considering a lack of legal standards and deep-rooted gender inequality in the country. 
 
A victim may not only feel shameful to talk, but also can be accused by the public in China. “Some people still think that it is the victims’ responsibility to be sexually harassed, or require them to behave themselves,” said Feng Yuan, a member of Chinese Women’s Research Society. 
 
Feng added that if one person is sexually harassed by someone he or she knows, it also shows inequality of power. 
 
“If we want to stop sexual harassment, the most basic part is to remould our culture, change old concepts on equality and power,” she said. 
 
Starting point
 
On January 1, 2018, the student Luo Qianqian made her story public on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. In an article, which has been viewed for more than 5 million times and forwarded over 16,800 times, she said that not only herself but also other female students were sexually harassed by Chen Xiaowu, a former professor of Beihang University and a scholar of the Changjiang Scholar Program. 
 
Currently living in the US and inspired by the MeToo campaign there, which has exposed widespread sexual assault and harassment in film, media and political industry in the West, Luo finally came to make up her mind to stand out. 
 
“Don’t be afraid, if you face harm, we need to have the courage to stand up and say no,” Luo encouraged female students of Beihang at the end of her article. 
 
Luo first revealed on Zhihu, a Quora-like Chinese platform, that she was assaulted by Chen at the end of 2004 when she was a Ph.D. student at Beihang, as she found by accident an article “How do we judge Beihang instructor Chen Xiaowu?” on the platform, which accused Chen of sexual harassment and detailed how he would request sex in exchange for academic favoritism, though it was later deleted. 
 
She then contacted other students who had similar experiences and provided evidence to the university’s disciplinary watchdog, including damning audio recordings. 
 
On January 11, the university announced on its Weibo account that after a thorough investigation, Chen “sexually harassed his students” and committed a severe violation of the moral and behavioral code of teachers, with deleterious effects on society. 
 
China’s Education Ministry also said it had “zero tolerance” on such behaviors of teachers and will establish a new mechanism to prevent sexual harassment.
 
An interview request to Luo Qianqian and her lawyer has been refused. 
 
Taking action
 
According to China Daily, All-China Women’s Federation released a study in 2014, based on 1,200 female students at 15 universities, finding that 50% of the students said they had been subject to sexual misconduct, either physical or verbal.
 
Another research based on 6,592 college students in March by Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center found that, 70% of college students and graduates claimed to have been sexually harassed, and 13% believed sexual harassment only occurs in body touch. 
 
Following that, Wei Tingting, the center’s initiator, sent information disclosure applications to 113 universities across China, asking whether they had received any reports on sexual harassment from students and whether there were any mechanisms in dealing with such cases. 
 
It turns out that “none of the universities has a designated department or a procedure to handle such issue,” Wei said. 
 
“It is essential for Chinese universities to create safe environment for students and keep them away from violence and sexual harassment,” Feng said. 
 
 
Experts say legal explanations on sexual harassment and assault in China are vague. Photo: AFP
 
The whistle-blowing against Chen soon encouraged more victims to stand out, and students from nearly 50 universities including Peking University and Qinghua University have launched a signing campaign calling for the establishment of a mechanism to prevent sexual harassment in universities. 
 
“I know that what I’m doing can make change,” said Zhang Leilei, a former student of Wuhan University and one of the initiators of the campaign. 
 
According to Zhang, public places in universities are not safe for students as there are sometimes men peeping into female bathrooms or exposing their genitals in public places. Zhang said that although establishing such a mechanism may not entirely stop sexual harassment, at least there would be a place for victims to report to when things happen. 
 
Specifically, what they are asking for are five “Ones”: one lesson to all students on how to act against sexual harassment; one online survey on sexual harassment each semester; one channel for students to report on sexual harassment behaviors; one designated department responsible for handling cases related to sexual harassment; one person in charge of the department.
 
Zhang said it is also necessary to set up such mechanisms in other public places such as bus and railway stations. 
 
Vague law
 
The fight against sexual harassment and assault in China would be challenging due to the high cost for victims to make complaints and little punishment to offenders, according to some experts and activists. 
 
“Litigations related to sexual harassment are just tip of the ice berg,” Li Ying, director of Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, told the sino-us.com, adding that in many cases, the involved parties only ended up with mediation. 
 
In 2014, Li provided legal assistance to the victims of a case in which they were harassed by a history professor of Xiamen University. The professor Wu Chunming was removed from his position following students’ public accusation, but a year later, Wu returned to public eye by becoming a member of the Chinese Society of Archaeology. 
 
“Teachers who have such stains should never return to their positions. It is what we expect,” Li said. “It shows that in academic circle in China, people often think that even if one person has moral stain, his academic ability can still be recognized.”
 
For privacy concerns, Li didn’t suggest the students to file lawsuit. “You very probably ended up with getting little compensation, while the victims might suffer huge risk,” Li said the students identities might be exposed as personal information was required to file lawsuit. 
 
Lack of evidence also makes it hard to win, according to Li. “The victims have to be conscious. First they need to try to avoid such things, second they have to try their best to retain evidences if it happened, such as recording or whatever other ways. It’s very important.”
 
Following the issue, the Ministry of Education published the "Seven Red Lines", a guideline that prohibits sexual harassment of students, improper relationships between students and lecturers, and other activities that run counter to professional ethics.
 
In fact, in 2005, the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests was amended to prohibit sexual harassment of women, and also empowered them to lodge complaints with relevant organizations. It was the first time the issue of sexual harassment and assault had specifically been addressed by Chinese law, according to China Daily. 
 
However, the legal interpretation on sexual harassment is still vague.
 
“There is no definition on sexual harassment in Chinese law, therefore, there is no legal standards that the court can refer to when dealing with such cases,” Li said. 
 
Sometimes there are also bias against the victims who are sexually harassed, according to Li, as some people may wonder why “you are the one who is harassed instead of others. Maybe it’s because of your own behavior or dressing.”
 
“The urgency now still is that all responsible parties can take action, instead of letting those regulations be just a piece of paper,” said Feng. 

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