'Speak up to prevent sexual harassment': Chinese feminists hail Beijing subway ads as sign of progress

Support for campaign is in stark contrast by efforts by authorities in another city to block a similar campaign last year

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2018, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 10:56am

A campaign on the Beijing subway encouraging people to speak up against sexual harassment has been hailed by feminists as a sign of progress – a year after authorities in another Chinese city blocked an activist group’s bid to display a similar poster.

The signs on the passenger straps read: “Speak up together to prevent sexual harassment. Don’t be a silent victim. Don’t be a cold, distant observer.”

Photos of the signs were widely shared across Chinese social media after their debut last week and garnered an overwhelmingly positive response.

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Last year the local authorities repeatedly clamped down on a feminist activist group’s efforts to display a poster bearing a similar message in the southern city of Guangzhou on the grounds they would cause public anxiety.

The visual imagery used in the Beijing metro campaign bears a strong resemblance to that used on the Guangzhou poster, with both showing an outstretched male arm that reaches out to touch a woman only to be held back by female hands.

Although the signs on the Beijing subway did not specify a police contact number or directions for formally reporting cases of sexual harassment, Chinese feminists have welcomed the move as a positive step towards combating the problem.

“This is the result of the hard work of many feminist activists who have brought the issue of sexual harassment to the government’s attention,” said Li Maizi, one of the “Feminist Five” group of activists who were detained in 2015 for handing out anti-sexual harassment stickers on the Beijing subway.

“These activities need to be continuously promoted,” Li told the South China Morning Post, adding that more needed to be done as the existing laws against sexual harassment were inadequate.

Leta Hong-Fincher, the author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, said: “To this day, feminist activists continue to be persecuted and harassed a lot for their activities around sexual harassment so it’s clear that the government is experimenting with different ways to respond to this unexpectedly large #MeToo movement in China.

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“Local authorities have realised that they can’t stonewall these efforts forever, and that there is tremendous demand for some kind of measure to acknowledge or try to prevent sexual harassment.”

The images on the Beijing subway passenger handles were first tested by the China Women’s Federation, the country’s official women’s movement, on eight lines in a pilot scheme in August last year.

This year’s campaign is on a much bigger scale, covering the whole network of 22 lines.

“When designing the advertisements, on one hand we wanted to remind women not to be silent victims, on the other, we also wanted to encourage society not to be passive witnesses of such crimes, but to be brave and speak out so it can be stopped in time, so we can resist sexual harassment together,” said Han Dongmei, deputy head of the federation’s Beijing branch.

The Beijing metro did not respond to a request for comment.

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Chinese internet users were overwhelmingly supportive of the Beijing scheme.

“In other countries, it is clearly written on the subway that sexual harassment is a crime and that offenders would be caught and punished,” wrote one user on Weibo.

“They show photos of police arresting people with handcuffs and other similar images to deter offenders and give the public peace of mind. But for China and its morally conservative society, this already counts as huge progress.”

Sexual harassment on public transport remains widespread in China, but authorities have been slow to combat the issue across the country.

A 2015 China Youth Daily poll of nearly 1,900 people found that more than half of the respondents, male and female, had experienced sexual harassment on the bus or subway, with unwanted physical touching cited as the most common example.

The first women-only subway carriages in China, tested in the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen last summer, came under fire for allowing men to board as well.

Last year the police in Beijing announced the formation of the first squad specifically targeting sex pests on the subway, arresting over 100 men in the first 12 months of its operations.