China's #MeToo campaign gains momentum

Feminist activists say China's fight against sexual harassment has reached new heights thanks to the global #MeToo campaign.

Feminist activists in China say they have reached new heights in the battle against gender-based violence.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement of the west, thousands have thrown their support behind the anti-sexual assault and harassment campaign in China. 

A prominent Beijing academic was forced to step down after allegations of sexual harassment were made online, but the movement has also received the attention of government censors.

The quiet streets of Beijing's Beihang University campus became the unlikely focus of China's #MeToo campaign this month after former student Luo Xixi took to Chinese social media accusing a professor of sexually harassing her in 2004.

According to an article posted by Ms Luo on Chinese social media, Professor Chen Xiaowu asked her to go with him to his sister's house to look after her plants.

Once in the house, she says he demanded sex, letting her go only when she pleaded she was a virgin.

Ms Luo's post quickly went viral.

Further investigations followed, with Ms Luo alleging at least three other women also made allegations of sexual harassment against Prof Chen.

The 45-year-old, who once served as the vice president of Beihang University, was stripped of his position and asked to pay back scholarship money.

The prominent academic is seen as the first person in China to be disciplined as a result of the worldwide #MeToo campaign.

Other women have since taken to social media raising allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

Feng Yuan is a Beijing-based social worker and activist who has worked with victims of gender-based violence for decades.

She says after years of fighting sexual harassment against women, the movement in China has reached a turning point.

"Many women have been reporting these kinds of incidents 10, even 20 years ago, but it didn't become a big campaign back then, the conditions just weren't right. Luo Xixi's case happened at the right time," Ms Feng said.

A survey by NGO Guangzhou Gender Centre Beijing Impact Law Centre last year found almost 70 per cent of respondents had been sexually harassed, but only four per cent reported it to authorities.

More than 10,000 Chinese students have written open letters to universities across the country, demanding mechanisms for dealing with reports of sexual harassment. Formal procedures currently do not exist.

But after being spread widely online, some student petitions were removed by government censors – sometimes repeatedly after being reposted.

Ms Feng says it highlights a crucial difference in Chinese version of the movement, which has taken the west by storm.

"When you speak out or petition universities to demand a system from the education ministry, it's seen causing instability," she said.

"Our media is not completely open. Although journalists write reports, they aren't always published. Or some media publish it, but it's deleted online."

But activists refuse to be silenced.

Li Maizi is a gay feminist activist who became known as one of the "feminist five" after being arrested in 2015 for campaigning against sexual assault on a Chinese subway ahead of International Women's Day.

She calls Ms Luo's case a "cornerstone" of China's #MeToo movement, but says there are key differences compared to the campaign in the west.

"We have to face a Big Brother in our country, the authorities. The power is concentrated at a high level in society, and the university belongs to that system. Most of the victims and survivors of sexual harassment are women, and it's this patriarchal system we are fighting against," Ms Li said.

She says a lack of legal framework relating to gender-based violence in China exacerbates the problem.

"The environment isn't supportive and even hostile to women. Speaking out can cost you a lot, your studies, your career, your community," Ms Li said.

Xiao Meili is another of China's most well-known women's rights activists.

In 2014 she walked more than 2000 kilometres from Beijing to China's south - raising awareness of victims of abuse.

She says a culture of victim-blaming has hampered the movement's progress over the years, but America's #MeToo campaign has inspired Chinese women to feel empowered simply through their use of social media.

"The Me Too campaign in the west was revelation for people in China, because it brought the idea that perpetrators could be directly exposed online and through this exposure be targeted," Ms Xiao said.

Last week China's education ministry released a statement pledging zero tolerance for inappropriate teacher behaviour and promising to work with other government bodies to build response mechanisms. 

More than 50 instructors from more than 30 Chinese universities have also recently signed a petition supporting the movement.

Both are major wins for those who have spent years fighting for women's rights.

But for activist Ms Xiao the movement's momentum itself has proven the real success.

"When I saw so many students writing letters to their university, I felt so excited. This is one of the few organised movements in China involving many people. I think it's a miracle that after the crackdown on so many social causes that so many are involved in this campaign," she said.

Published 25 January 2018 at 10:05pm, updated 26 January 2018 at 8:58am
By Katrina Yu