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A group of Chinese feminists are fighting back on social networks against widespread sexual harassment at universities. But the fight has been tough as they face censorship and government crackdowns.
On January 1, Luo Xixi, a computer scientist currently working in Silicon Valley, posted an open letter on the Chinese social media platform Weibo accusing her former technology professor at Beihang University of sexual harassment.
In the blog post, she said that in 2004 her PhD advisor Chen Xiaowu had asked her to drive with him to his apartment to help him tend to his houseplants. Luo said Chen complained about his sex life and tried to force her to have sex with him.
She remained silent about the incident for 13 years until the #MeToo movement, which emerged in October 2017, inspired her to share her story.
She initially posted an anonymous open letter on the Chinese discussion forum Zhihu.com. Soon after, several other former female students who had read her post also accused Chen of sexual harassment.
In November 2017, Luo connected with Sophia Huang Xueqin, a freelance Chinese journalist who launched her own version of #MeToo using a Wechat account called ATSH (Anti-Sexual Harassment). Luo posted her story with her name on Weibo and ATSH. Within a day, it got over 3 million views.
Huang told DW that while the #MeToo campaign encouraged her and other Chinese feminists, China's anti-sexual harassment campaign is not the same. "China's anti-sexual harassment movement actually works differently from the #MeToo movements in Europe and the United States," she said. "It is put under the name of #MeToo because it is easier for the Western media to report about it," she said.
The power of the chatroom
The accused professor Chen responded to the allegations by telling the Beijing Youth Daily, a Communist Party youth league newspaper, that he had done "nothing illegal." On January 11, Beihang University fired Chen from his position of vice president of the graduate school and issued a statement saying he had engaged in "sexual harassment behavior" and seriously violated the school's code of conduct. A few days later, the Chinese Ministry of Education revoked his academic accolade, the "Yangtze River Scholar" award.
The publicity of Luo's #MeToo moment also generated a wave of student-led petitions calling for universities to be held accountable for sexual harassment by faculty members. In the weeks after Luo's post, more than 70 petitions were launched.
"We brought down Chen Xiaowu and jointly wrote letters to colleges and universities to urge the introduction of anti-harassment mechanisms," said Huang. "In the end, the Ministry of Education promised to establish a mechanism to combat campus sexual assault."
"Because college girls are better educated and because society has certain moral expectations of teachers, it is difficult to accept a teacher with such misconduct," Xiao Meili, a Chinese women's rights activist, told DW.
"Sexual harassment is very common in China. It is often seen as a problem of bullying, bad behavior or morality. More people should notice that it has more to do with power relations." She added that faculty members who have harassed women don't wield much power over them and students can still graduate after breaking their silence.
#MeToo but by Chinese standards?
Although the firing of a prominent university professor and the Ministry of Education's promise to act are steps toward an institutional response to sexual harassment, the filtering and censorship of hashtags and online petitions raise questions about the future of organized feminist campaigns in the country.
Xiao was one of many Chinese feminists who posted an open letter, only to see it quickly removed by censors. Her message to her alma mater in Beijing, the Communication University of China, was posted on Weibo and Wechat, and had called for an organized system to prevent sexual harassment at Chinese universities.
"Sexual harassment is rampant on Chinese college campuses, and victims who are coerced by their instructors, usually have nowhere to file their allegations," the petition said. "Given the severity of sexual harassment at institutions, we feel obliged to be vocal. It's imperative that Chinese colleges construct a mechanism to prevent sexual harassment on campus."
Xiao said her post was deleted because feminist ideas do not meet the mainstream, ideological requirements of the Chinese government.
"The thinking of the authorities doesn't necessarily target the #MeToo movement. Everything that deviates from mainstream ideology or that involves power could be deleted."
And while the Chinese government ostensibly supports fighting sexual harassment, when a cause gains too much publicity or threatens to create a larger social movement, it is inevitably censored by authorities.
The detention of the "Feminist Five" in 2015 for handing out stickers to raise awareness about sexual harassment, and the strengthening of the Communist Party's information control apparatus means that the possibility of a mass women's rights movement gaining momentum in China appears more complicated when compared with the US and elsewhere. But there is room for optimism.
Focus on victim, not perpetrator
Official Communist Party doctrine addresses women's rights in the form of the official organization, the All-China Women's Federation, which was launched in 1949 when the People's Republic of China was established. At the time, Party Chairman Mao Zedong professed that women "hold up half the sky."
"The #MeToo movement in China already has a far bigger impact than I expected," said Xiao, adding that activists wanted to establish mechanisms and enable more people to participate in the discussion and expand the movement's reach.
"In the West, the #MeToo movement has exposed men in fields including entertainment, politics and business. It is hardly possible in China, as there is too much at stake in these areas. I put my hopes on women who work for private companies to take more action," added Xiao.
As with online social activists and human rights bloggers in China, the nascent Chinese #MeToo movement will encounter increasingly broader and more aggressive government censorship as it develops the potential to be a larger social force.
Huang explained that Chinese women (when they are not the victims) are brave to express their opinion and condemn sexual harassment. However, very few victims dare to report these cases with their real names as sexual harassment will be analyzed in detail and the victim might even be questioned and not believed by some people because she is not the "perfect" victim.
"The traditional patriarchal hierarchy is a hotbed of sexual assault and sexual harassment," said Xiao, adding that people shift their focus to the victims, and society lacks relevant laws and often looks for the source of the problem among victims. "The ones who seek to break silence deal with a sense of shame, and the perpetrators aren't afraid. It is a vicious circle."