Sex pests on the subway: China is finally cracking down, thanks to its brave women

Lijia Zhang welcomes the Beijing authorities’ crackdown on gropers on the city’s busy metro – four years after five women were arrested for calling attention to the same problem. The change in the government’s attitude should be attributed to the work of these activists and the #MeToo movement

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2018, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 July, 2018, 6:01pm

On a cold spring night in March 2015, a few hours before International Women Day, Li Maizi, a young feminist, was arrested at home by police officers who took her to a detention centre. There, she and four other feminists were kept behind bars for 37 days. Their crime: planning to hand out fliers to bring attention to sexual harassment on public transport. 

It seems a little ironic that Beijing authorities have recently launched a crackdown against sexual perverts on the subway. Beijing News reported that more than 30 people have been punished for sexually harassing women on the capital’s busy metro.

Contrary to the official claims, sexual harassment is prevalent in mainland China. One study conducted by two City University of Hong Kong professors revealed that 80 per cent of working women have encountered sexual harassment at least once.

And the public transport system is infested with many gropers, nicknamed “salty pig hands”, who take advantage of the often crowded space to assault women. In another survey, of 2,023 people conducted by China Youth Daily in 2017, 53.5 per cent of female respondents said they, or someone they knew, had experienced sexual harassment on the subway.

So why has the government decided to tackle this ongoing issue now? I attribute it to the efforts made by activists such as Li Maizi and the #MeToo movement.

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The arrest of the “Feminist Five”, as they came to be known, triggered a debate about women’s rights and significantly increased public awareness of sexual harassment in China and inspired others to take action.

Last winter, Zheng Xi, a PhD candidate with a focus on gender studies at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, launched a campaign demanding city governments around China display an anti-sexual harassment logo, sporting a “salty pig hand”. In an interview with SupChina, she said optimistically: “I am sure that if more people notice this, then the government will have to notice, too.”

The Beijing authorities seemed to have taken notice, not just because of her logo. The #MeToo movement has also played a role. Started in the US, it has been making waves globally, even in some Muslim countries. In China, although there hasn’t been a “movement” as such, due to the authorities’ censorship, a conservative culture and weak laws, it has sparked some brave women to speak out.

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In January, Luo Xixi, a Beihang University graduate, posted a blog on social media detailing the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of her own adviser. Others, mostly university educated women who are responsive to the goings-on in the world, followed suit. They either spoke out about their own grievances or requested an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse others suffered.

Not surprisingly, the authorities tried to silence them. Sexual harassment was blocked on social media platforms, petitions were deleted and the term “MeToo” was banned. Amid the censorship, the activists continued to find ways to push back. MeToo, for example, became mitu to dodge censorship.

I believe their efforts kept the issue of sexual harassment in the limelight and, in some ways, pressured the government into action.

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According to Beijing News, a special police force was first established last June to deal with sexual aggressors. Its nickname, the “Wolf Hunting Squad”, is a reference to se lang, or “coloured wolf”, a slang term for sexual predators. The squad has now been expanded to 20 teams.

I heartily welcome the establishment of such “wolf hunting squads”. Under the hunters’ watchful eyes, those harassing hands may stay still for a while. But such a special task force is hardly a long-term solution.

Stronger legislation with a clearly defined sexual harassment offence and clear guidance on punishment of perpetrators is needed.

The authorities should also give more space to civil society. To start with, they should arrest more “salty pig hands”’ and leave alone the women who try to fight against them.

Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus