#MeToo? Silence, shame and the cost of speaking out about sexual harassment in China
Chinese women tell of police inaction, crackdowns on activism and pressure both from society at large and those closest to them
Xu Yalu, 28, was sexually harassed in public by the same elderly man on three occasions during the four years she spent working in Jingansi, one of Shanghai’s poshest business districts. The police told her there was not a thing they could do about it.
“Each time police would tell me he is too old for detention or he could not help himself because of his neurological condition,” Xu told the South China Morning Post.
Inspired by the global #MeToo movement, she posted an article on WeChat on November 27 detailing how she was groped by the man in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The article went viral within two days. It was viewed more than 1.19 million times, received more than 17,000 likes and nearly 9,000 comments before it was deleted by Chinese censors.
The #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment, that began in the US, has been translated into multiple languages around the world and prompted countless women to come forward with their own stories. But in China, the narrative is very different.
Even as more women try to come forward, they face a host of barriers: police inaction, a legal system ill-equipped to address their claims, state crackdowns on activism and immense pressure both from society at large and those closest to them.
The women who spoke to the South China Morning Post for this article may have come from different cities and backgrounds, but their stories were strikingly similar: in one way or another they felt they had been silenced and shamed for speaking out.
Many of the comments on Xu’s article said she must have been asking for it, while some asked if she had been wearing revealing clothes. But as she dug through the pile of hurtful comments, Xu discovered accounts by more than 100 women of harassment by the same man, with the earliest – involving a victim who was only 14 at the time – dating back two decades.
Her blood still curdles when she recalls what people told her when she cornered the old man after he molested her for the third time.
“It was July 12, 2015, a Sunday. Many bystanders gathered, mostly men in their 50s, and they asked me to let the man go, in keeping with the virtues of respecting the elderly and forgiving others,” she said. “I then said to them: ‘What if this has happened to your own daughter, would you just let it go?’ The crowd went quiet.”
Huang Xueqin, 29, was a journalist at a state-owned news agency but quit after her supervisor tried to force himself upon her in a hotel room. She went public with her experience of sexual harassment last year and was one of the first women in China to embrace the #MeToo movement this year.
She is now conducting a survey of women journalists on the mainland to discover the extent of sexual harassment in the media. Of the more than 250 journalists polled so far, more than 80 per cent said they had been sexually harassed. Most of the victims had suffered in silence, while 3.3 per cent had resigned and less than 1 per cent had filed a complaint to police.
“I know I’ve opened a floodgate,” Huang said. “Journalists are supposed to be more resourceful and skilful advocates than others. If they don’t know how to speak out for themselves, what about the rest of the women in this country?”
Huang has set up a social media platform, Anti Sexual Harassment, to show women how to protect themselves, gather evidence and confront perpetrators.
Liu Shanshan has every reason to thank her mother, a doctor, for the early sex education she received, saying it helped her narrowly escape being raped when she was a 16-year-old intern at a television station in Guangdong a decade ago.
Now a psychologist, she said the station’s chief, who was drunk, had pushed her against a wall so hard that her shoulder was dislocated and had demanded oral sex.
“I remembered what my mother had taught me, so I squeezed where it would hurt the most, so hard and so many times, until he literally fainted,” Liu said.
Police, accompanied by the station chief, who accused her of assaulting him, visited her house the next day.
“They threatened to lock me up and demanded I apologise,” she said. “The police would not believe a word I said and one of them even said I was asking for it and should have known better than to stay alone at work so late.”
A leading women’s rights activist in Guangzhou, who declined to be named due to the recent crackdown on feminists in China, said victims faced hurdles when dealing with police.
“When working with victims in the past, we didn’t come across any female police officers, not even once,” she said. “Victims, including underage girls, were questioned in unsafe environments by male police who lacked awareness and sensitivity. The girls were often ridiculed and shamed when being questioned, which left them with no courage to press ahead.
“We have had girls from rural backgrounds filing rape reports who have been suspected of financial extortion. It is hard enough to gather enough courage to speak up but our police force has made it that much more difficult for them.
“We are dealing with a lot of police negligence and when we do gather enough attention from law enforcement, prosecutors are also reluctant to move ahead.”
There is no official data about the ratio of female officers in China’s police system, but according to enrolment notices from various police bureaus across the country, the percentage is often below 10.
Lu Xiaoquan, a lawyer from the Beijing-based Qianqian law firm, which specialises in women’s rights, said there were no specific directives for officers on how to handle claims of abuse by women, but there were guidelines on cases involving the abuse of juveniles, which could be a good reference.
A regulation issued in 2013 requires officers to use a gentle tone and choose places that the young victim is comfortable with when conducting an inquiry. If the victim is a girl, at least one female officer should be present during the interview.
However, Lu said, those guidelines were rarely complied with.
A Shanghai police officer, who declined to be named, said police colleges had no particular course on how to deal with claims of abuse by women and he had not heard of any such training within the police system.
The Guangzhou-based activist said victims of sexual harassment in China could speak out and the country could have its own #MeToo movement, but it would “surely be a short-lived campaign and soon be cracked down on by the authorities”, who would regard it as a threat to social stability.
“The strong demand for women’s rights to be respected is loud, especially on social media,” she said.
“Chinese women face the same problems of sexual harassment as their global counterparts, like traditional values and public shaming. But what’s setting them back is crackdowns from the authorities.”
More victims have spoken out in recent years, often with the help of social media, but most have not approached the police.
A survey of more than 65,000 men and 62,000 women by Sina.com and For Him Magazine in 2015 found that about 66 per cent of the men and 80 per cent of the women said they had been sexually harassed. About half the women and a quarter of the men had not told anyone they had been harassed, and only 4 per cent of the women and 3 per cent of the men had filed complaints with the police.
Lu said it was difficult to prevent and punish sexual harassment in China because there was no specific law against it. That meant sexual harassment in the workplace was treated as a labour dispute, while someone assaulted in a public place needed to apply for personal injury compensation.
“It’s also hard to collect evidence as harassment often happens in private,” Lu said.
Two laws – the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women and the Special Rules on the Labour Protection of Female Employees – included a few vague clauses relevant to sexual harassment, but they did not define such assaults or give clear guidance on how an attacker should be punished.
Lu said few victims would win a lawsuit, and even if they did, they received little compensation.
“Usually it’s 2,000 yuan (US$300) to 3,000 yuan, as mental damage compensation, which is not even enough for a psychological consultation,” he said.
While there was no law against sexual harassment on the legislative agenda, Lu said one targeting employment discrimination, which included a section on sexual harassment in the workplace, had been proposed and discussed at the legislature’s annual session in recent years.
A court in Xian dismissed the mainland’s first sexual harassment case for lack of evidence in 2001. The plaintiff, a woman who said she had endured seven years of harassment from her direct manager at a state-owned company in the city, had been seeking a public apology.
Li Ying, director of the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Centre, said lawmakers should amend existing laws to address sexual harassment.
“For example, we can add the responsibility of the employer, increase punishment for the assaulter, and introduce specific regulations for schools, a typical place where harassment occurs,” she said.
Li said that even though more victims had the courage to publicly say no to sexual harassment, their voices were still not loud or persistent enough compared to those in the West.
Besides its immature legal system, China’s patriarchal society shared the blame, she said.
Li, also a lawyer, said she had dealt with nearly 20 sexual harassment cases since 2005, and most of the victims had lost not only their cases, but also their husbands or boyfriends.
People close to them would look at them in a different way and even their family would feel ashamed, she said.
In one case, a 20-something woman was married off by her mother to an older man in a remote area after being harassed by someone else, Li said, because her mother “felt that she was not clean any more and had shamed the family’s ancestors”.
Zhou Yun, a Harvard-trained sociologist and a postdoctoral research associate in population studies at Brown University in the United States, said a serious problem in Chinese society was the deeply entrenched idea of “blaming the victim”, which held that they must have done something wrong to provoke the harassment or assault.
It was often the victim, rather than the attacker, who was “on trial” and had to somehow prove a degree of moral worth.
“This can be incredibly damaging and keep survivors from coming forward,” Zhou said. “Also, when we discuss sexual harassment and assault, again, the burden often largely falls onto women to ‘stay safe’, rather than any institutional or legal recourse.
“After each publicised incident, we see countless ‘stay safe’ tips in news media, and sometimes from the official social media accounts of local police and government branches. This again ties back to the ‘blaming the victim’ mentality – that somehow it must be your own fault, to not be modest enough, or careful enough.”