The #MeToo movement that started with accusations against Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood has finally spread to China, although it’s facing different obstacles there, thanks to China’s sociopolitical landscape of patriarchal Confucian values and repressive politics.
One of the catalysts for #MeToo in China, translated as “我也是” or #WoYeShi, was a social media post by academic Luo Xixi last month, in which she accused her former doctoral professor Chen Xiaowu of unwanted sexual advances. Although Luo now lives in Silicon Valley, her story went viral in China, and Beihang University suspended Chen and conducted an investigation on Luo’s behalf.
Chinese journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin spoke up on social media about her experiences being groped and harassed by a senior male reporter during her internship at a national news agency more than six years ago. Xueqin also took things a step further by creating a WeChat poll that asked female journalists about their experiences with sexual harassment. Out of 255 respondents, more than 80 percent reported being sexually harassed at least once.
According to Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother, an upcoming book about China’s feminist movement, she says that serious consequences for sexual harassment are possible in China, but still the exception. “You’re going to have isolated cases where a woman comes out using her real name and maybe that perpetrator will be suspended or fired,” says Fincher. “I have no doubt that we’ll see more of those cases. But the thing is that it can’t go too far.”
The #MeToo movement in the US and other countries relied heavily on in-depth investigative reporting to succeed. But in China, where media is state-run and censored and rule of law is arbitrary and easily corrupted, the movement has struggled to find traction and build momentum. “The victims... are so much more vulnerable to assault than women in a functioning legal system,” says Fincher.
A former college student at Peking University, Gu Huaying, drafted a petition letter addressed to Peking University’s president, asking for anti-sexual harassment measures to be put in place. As the letter spread through Chinese social media, government censors deleted it completely and also took down reblogs of the original letter.
Fincher points out that the crackdown on feminist activists in China is ongoing. In 2015, five prominent feminist figures in China were arrested and criminally detained to keep them from holding an anti-sexual harassment campaign on International Women’s Day. The activists weren’t given an official explanation for the detainment, but that’s not unusual as Chinese authorities have a history of arbitrarily detaining anyone they deem to be disturbing the status quo.
Although individual women are speaking out, it’s more uncommon for groups of women in China to come forward with their real names to bring down powerful men, especially well-connected ones. Historically, at least, the government tends to crack down harshly on opposing groups, so it’s likely many women will continue to remain silent. “[There] are huge structural barriers that simply don’t exist in most other countries,” says Fincher.