#MeToo in China, women want more than a voice

Yuhong Pang
Mar 1, 2018 · 5 min read

Alice Wang had not expected that one day she would have the opportunity to tell her stories until she saw the #MeToo movement on Instagram in October last year.

Two years ago, she transferred to a Catholic high school in Belleville, a small town near St. Louis. Leaving China, a society where women are often portrayed as being less competent than men and somewhat disadvantaged, Alice felt more confident than before. She was trying to forget something that was buried in the bottom of her heart while tons of “MeToo” hashtags circulated on social media.

For the first time, she felt empowered.

Another woman, Xixi Luo, a PhD from Beihang University also felt inspired by the worldwide #MeToo movement. In early January, she wrote an open letter on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like platform, that reported her experience of being sexually harassed by her former faculty adviser, Xiaowu Chen. Following her letter, lots of students and alumni of Beihang University also reported similar experiences they had had with Professor Chen.

This was the fourth campus sexual harassment case that was reported last year. Unlike the prior cases, this one triggered a nationwide discussion about combating campus sexual-harassment, on both state media and social media. An online survey, issued in 2017 by the Guangzhou Sex Education Center, shows that 70 percent of students and graduates reported having experienced sexual harassment on Chinese college campuses, but only 4 percent chose to report the abuse to the schools or the police.

After Ms. Luo published her story, alumni from over 70 universities in China gathered around 8,000 signatures and sent open letters to their alma maters, suggesting a systemic approach on sexual harassment prevention. Later, university professors, lawyers, feminist groups and overseas scholars echoed this initiative under the “MeToo in China” hashtag on Weibo.

However, the online discussion was quickly muzzled: most open letters were deleted and the contents, including the term “sexual-harassment,” couldn’t be fully searched on Weibo. Around January 19, five days after the Chinese Ministry of Education revoked Chen’s qualification as a Yangtze River Scholar, the hashtag “MeToo in China” was temporarily blocked. Meili Xiao, a famous Chinese feminist activist, said that some students who had signed her open letter to Communication University of China (CUC) were questioned by their school instructors, who doubted the students’ motivation and asked whether there was a foreign force behind the movement.

Women in China use “Rice bunny”, which sounds similar to “me too” in Chinese to circumvent the censorship.

Apart from the concern over “foreign forces,” Yun Zhou is more worried about the consequences of collective activities. As a postdoctoral research associate in Population Studies at Brown University, she pays close attention to the feminist movement in China. “Once you want to extend the online discussion into an organized activity, the risk will double.”

Three years ago, five women’s rights activists were detained for a month when they tried to highlight the sexual harassment issue in public on International Women’s Day.

Many people think online censorship is normal in China, including Miaoqing Lu, a visiting scholar at Fordham Law School. “I don’t think the party is against #MeToo or anti-sexual harassment itself, but it may care about who initiates this anti-sexual harassment campaign.”

Pin Lv, editor-in-chief of Feminist Voices, however, holds a different view on content censorship. “The content deletion system in China is relatively independent. It uses keywords and manual labors to monitor social media, so it will delete some information automatically when the system sees signs of government criticism, even though it may not know what #MeToo is.” But the feminist group in China is very vulnerable, she adds. “We have to adjust our movement strategically to sustain the momentum.”

Sexual harassment is rampant but largely underreported in China. For those who have experienced sexual harassment, the trauma may last for years. And their hope for #MeToo goes beyond only wanting to raise public awareness.

Ms. Wang used to have nightmares, tossing and turning all night without getting a wink of sleep. She couldn’t forget how terrified she was when a distant relative walked into her room and sat next to her on the bed. “I felt him put his hand on my thigh,” she recalled, her voice trembling. “I was so scared.” At the time, she was fourteen years old.

After she saw the #MeToo movement, a sense of solidarity stimulated her to talk about this experience with her mom. Her mother’s first reaction was far more disappointing than she expected.

“He simply regards you as a child,” her mom said.

“I know what happened,” she texted angrily on the phone. “Don’t deny me!” She then realized that even though both her parents are well-educated, they still hold onto the traditional gender inequality mindset.

This conversation confirmed her thought that social awareness or psychological support for sexual harassment victims alone is not enough. “We have to see those people pay the price.”

She’s not alone in advocating against sexual harassment.

Tianchenghui Wang, a senior at Nanjing Ginling College, decided to make victims’ voices heard beyond the online community. As a victim of sexual harassment herself, she opened a public account on WeChat to collect victims’ personal stories and then published them anonymously. Encouraged by her teacher, she has gathered over 100 real stories since November 24th, 2017 and called upon her friends in the college to make a scrapbook and place it in their public children’s library. “When parents come to the library, they will be able to read and educate their kids about sex and gender equality through this book,” Wang said. “I’ll do whatever I can to raise awareness, no matter how insignificant it looks.”

Many feminist groups also extended their efforts offline as #MeToo went viral on social media. Xi Zheng, a feminist in Zhejiang province designed an anti-sexual harassment logo and wrote letters to representatives of the National People’s Congress in nine provinces, suggesting adding the logo in public places. So far, Zheng and her cohorts have received replies from five provinces, including Zhejiang, Shanghai, and Guangdong. Many representatives promised to propose her suggestions to the provincial people’s congress.

Tingting Wei, the founder of the Guangzhou Sex Education Center, has also tried to set up an Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault Network, providing legal and psychological assistance to the victims. Although her crowdfunding page has been deleted four times, she doesn’t want to give up. “I will keep posting the information to push gender education forward,” she said. “The party is not monolithic, so there’s always room.”

Yuhong Pang

Written by

Columbia Journalism School 18'; reporter; visual storyteller; city flaneur

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