China’s students lead charge in #MeToo campaign
Efforts to stop sexual harassment are hampered by censorship and strict social controls
A woman walks through Beijing’s Beihang University, where professor was recently fired for sexually harassing students. Chinese women are rallying behind the #WoYeShi hashtag inspired by the #MeToo movement. Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images
Inspired by the #MeToo movement in the US denouncing sexual harassment, former doctoral student Luo Qianqian decided to go public on how her professor had assaulted her under the guise of seeking her help to water his plants.
Now Chinese women are rallying behind the #WoYeShi hashtag, attacking misogyny and sex pests despite strict social controls and government censorship that forbids campaigning about social issues.
In an online blog, Luo accused Chen Xiaowu, a computer scientist at Beihang University in Beijing, of sexual assault when he was her doctoral adviser in 2005. He lured her to his sister’s house and made unwanted sexual advances, and only “let her go unharmed” when she burst into tears and pleaded that she was a virgin.
“The following years of my life, during which he served as my supervisor, was a nightmare because he treated me so badly,” Luo wrote in the post.
Less than two weeks after she made her accusation, Beihang sacked Chen as vice-director of the graduate school, and said an investigation found that he had sexually harassed multiple students.
Organising a campaign against sexual harassment, or even making an official complaint, is difficult in China, given the ongoing hard line on civil advocacy and non-governmental organisations. Phrases such as “anti-sexual harassment” are banned online, and “silence breakers” have themselves been silenced.
In 2015, feminist activists were held for 37 days for trying to organise a nationwide campaign against sexual harassment on China’s public transport network. But despite official attempts to muzzle the campaigns, support is growing.
Luo was careful, and made sure to contact her fellow alumni who also had been assaulted before giving evidence, including audio recordings, to the college’s disciplinary body.
Feng Yuan, co-founder of anti-domestic violence group Equality and a veteran women’s rights advocate, says Luo’s case has given impetus to the #MeToo movement in China, where much of the momentum is on college campuses.
This is not entirely surprising. A survey in March last year by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre and the Beijing Impact Law Firm found that 70 per cent of 6,592 undergraduates said they had experienced sexual harassment.
“So far, several cases have been reported, and the presidents of over 70 universities received alumni petitions to form a mechanism against sexual harassment. About 60 university teachers all over the country have also signed an open letter to echo the petition,” says Feng.
The main drivers behind the campaign, and the most common signatories on petitions, are young undergraduates.
“An open letter is their way of creating a channel of dialogue. Some universities gave positive and even constructive responses, but most universities have kept silent. One university, Sun Yat-sen University, rejected the mail after opening it and learning its contents. So the room for dialogue is quite limited so far,” says Feng.
There has been a more positive response from the ministry of education, which has said it will try to come up with a long-term, sustainable policy of dealing with sexual harassment.
I don’t have the same influence as celebrities, but I will stand up for myself for sure
“Some experts have called for the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including students, in forming sexual harassment policy in the future,” says Feng.
China is socially conservative, and dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace or in universities is still a source of embarrassment and shame.
Lu Li, 30, who works in project management in Beijing and is single, says she would stand up to sexual harassment if she was positive that she could make it public and expose it.
“After all, I don’t have the same influence as celebrities, but I will stand up for myself for sure. If I were married and had a family, then I would do it differently,” says Lu.
Another woman, who is married and works for an American company, says she wouldn’t report it, for fear of causing embarrassment. “I won’t stand up as it will affect my current life too much. For my age, my life now is stable and I don’t need to expose this thing to everyone, and it is more important to protect what I have now,” she says.
“For people in the big city, people might feel sorry for you or empathy with you. I am married, I don’t want to let everybody else share this bad memory or experience with me,” she said.
On social media, Luo’s case has earned widespread support and prompted calls for women to take more action against sexual harassment.