Asian Angle
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In India and China, #MeToo has much further to go

Two cases – involving Chinese television anchor Zhu Jun and Indian politician M.J. Akbar – have galvanised women

But the movement is not short of hurdles, and there is no guarantee those who speak out will succeed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 4:25pm

Both are powerful men in their industries: one, a famous television host who is recognised by millions, and the other, a veteran newspaper editor who went on to become a powerful cabinet minister.

Both also rose to the top of their professions – and stayed there – despite what some in their own industries long knew about their allegedly predatory behaviour towards female colleagues. The only thing differentiating them is that one happens to be Chinese, and the other Indian.

In recent weeks, Chinese television anchor Zhu Jun and India’s junior foreign minister M.J. Akbar have, in different ways come to symbolise the fledgling #MeToo movements in India and China.

With both Zhu’s and Akbar’s cases set to go to court, they will also pose the first legal challenges to the #MeToo movements in both countries, which have already been stifled by deeply entrenched patriarchal values that continue to discourage Chinese and Indian women from speaking out.

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On Wednesday, Akbar was forced to resign his government position. But even that took at least 19 women to bravely speak out, describing what they alleged to be a pattern of predatory behaviour targeting Akbar’s junior colleagues from his time as a veteran newspaper editor.

Initially, the Narendra Modi government’s stony silence suggested it was preparing to brazenly wait out the widespread outrage. But with Akbar threatening a criminal defamation suit against journalist Priya Ramani, who was the first to publicly identify him in a tweet, the government may have decided it would be untenable for him to discharge his duties amid an ongoing legal battle.

While the bravery of the women who have come forward – with little to gain but much to lose – has driven the #MeToo movement in India, it has been aided by widespread media coverage. Akbar’s case has dominated the front pages of newspapers and prime-time television news shows in India this week.

That has been one major point of departure from China, where the odds are stacked even higher against victims. The state-controlled media has all but censored the dozens of cases that have lit the #MeToo fire this past summer, targeting not only Zhu but prominent senior journalists, activists, university professors and even an influential Buddhist monk. In China, the movement has persisted despite what was effectively a media blackout.

What is striking, however, is the leading role of social media in both countries in bringing cases to light. For instance, the allegations against Zhu Jun would have most likely not seen the light if the victim, using the pen name Xianzi, didn’t post her story on WeChat. When her friend posted the account on Weibo, it went viral.

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Similarly, the influential former head of the Buddhist Association of China, Xuecheng, was forced to resign only after online outrage triggered by nuns posting accounts of his alleged sexual harassment. It did, however, take two weeks – and no thanks to state media.

Xianzi’s story would be a familiar one to the Indian women who have in recent weeks shared their #MeToo stories, underlining how the system – from their own workplaces to the authorities – is still stacked against women who come forward. She was a 25-year-old intern when, according to her account, Zhu molested her.

According to Xianzi, state broadcaster China Central Television and the police discouraged her from taking up the case because of the “positive” image he enjoyed in China. Apparently they didn’t think that this disturbing allegation tarnished it. CCTV hasn’t commented.

Indian journalist Ghazala Wahab faced a similar experience when she approached a senior female colleague, and told her Akbar had allegedly groped her in his cabin after she had been called in on the pretext of looking up some words in a dictionary.

Now that these cases have come to light, the #MeToo movements in both countries face considerable legal challenges. Akbar, with his team of 97 lawyers, has threatened a criminal defamation suit against Ramani, which comes up for hearing next Thursday. Zhu, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit against Xianzi and her friend, demanding a compensation of 655,000 yuan (US$94,710). Xianzi has filed her own counter suit.

Both India and China lag the West when it comes to sexual harassment laws. Here, India fares better considering, at least, the independence of its courts, unlike in China where the likelihood of a state-controlled court hearing a case against a sitting cabinet minister is remote.

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China still doesn’t have a law specifically prohibiting sexual harassment, while India in 2013 passed a workplace sexual harassment law that not only defines what constitutes harassment but also what workplaces are required to do in these situations, from constituting internal complaints committees to holding sensitisation workshops. Implementation and enforcement still remain challenges.

Beyond the legal domain, perhaps the greatest challenge confronting the #MeToo movements in both countries, despite their different political systems, lies in tackling pervasive patriarchal mindsets.

Victim-shaming is rife. When Chinese journalist Zhang Wen was accused of rape, he responded by pointing out the woman in question “had many boyfriends back in university”. In India, many women have come under attack on social media from speaking out, accused of using #MeToo to further their careers – ironically, when the cost of speaking out still remains staggeringly high.

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Victims are deterred at every level – from their colleagues to the police – from taking up their causes of justice. In China, the costs from speaking out are perhaps greater. Students in campuses have been warned from carrying out public demonstrations to show their anger at widespread harassment that students face. The government has already shown its inclination to extinguish the flames of #MeToo through every available means, from censoring social media posts to jailing women’s activists, which India’s democratic system fortunately doesn’t allow.

What the #MeToo movement has changed is in giving many women the courage in speaking out. The challenges, no doubt, are many, but the silence has been broken. And that is no small feat.

Ananth Krishnan is a visiting fellow at Brookings India and was previously the Beijing correspondent for India Today and The Hindu