On Oct. 13 last year, Luo Xixi, a Chinese Ph.D. graduate currently living in Silicon Valley, read a Twitter message posted by the American actress Alyssa Milano encouraging women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to speak out using the hashtag #MeToo. Luo decided to share her own story on China’s Quora-like platform Zhihu, where she recounted the harassment she had been subjected to by her Ph.D. advisor, Chen Xiaowu, 12 years ago.
Later that same month, Luo lodged a formal complaint against Chen at Beihang University, the Beijing-based school where she obtained her doctoral degree. But her case has proceeded slowly and remains unresolved. On Jan. 1, Luo went public with her accusations on Weibo, a popular microblogging website. She also took part in an interview in which she publicly accused Chen of sexually harassing at least seven women over the course of a decade. Luo’s words sparked public furor; that evening, Beihang announced on its official Weibo account that it planned to investigate the incident.
On Jan. 11, Beihang published an update on its Weibo page stating that Chen has been stripped of his position and relieved of all his teaching duties. Three days later, the Ministry of Education (MoE) stripped Chen of a prestigious scholars’ award and said it would seek to recover the funds it had given him. The MoE also announced that it would cooperate with other government departments to establish an effective system to prevent and deal with sexual harassment on college campuses.
Although Luo’s battle is not yet over, it is already a milestone for Chinese women’s fight against widespread sexual harassment on college campuses. An article on a popular WeChat account recently summarized 14 high-profile incidents of harassment between January 2014 and April 2017, eight of which were proven and led to punishments for the accused. In a separate case at the College of Biomedical Engineering of Beijing Union University in 2016, the school released the results of a preliminary investigation declaring the professor to be innocent of any improper conduct, though the final report was never released. One more case was verified, but again the university didn’t release the final report. The other four cases are yet to be concluded.
A 2017 survey on sexual harassment among university students, jointly conducted by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center and Beijing Impact Law Firm, found that almost 70 percent of around 6,500 people said they had experienced sexual harassment in tertiary education. Ten percent of those said the experience had an impact on their interpersonal relationships and studies, and in some cases led to depression and attempted suicide. Yet almost half of the victims chose to stay silent and only less than 4 percent said they had filed a report with their school or police.
Wei Tingting, the woman who led the survey, points to three main reasons why sexual harassment is so common and yet so underreported at Chinese universities. First, some victims do not consider the incident serious enough to file a complaint. Second, the traditional stigma attached to sex may cause victims to feel ashamed to talk about what happened. Also, victims lack faith in existing mechanisms for handling assault cases, believing that nothing would come of their report.
This situation reflects two broader problems. First, there is no universal definition for sexual harassment. The general consensus is that harassment targets a particular individual; it is conducted against the will of the victim; and although it is serious, it remains distinct from sexual assault or other sex crimes. Whether or not an act constitutes sexual harassment, and if so how serious it is, is often highly contingent upon the subjective feelings of the victim.
In a 2013 paper, Huang Yingying and Pan Suiming, two of China’s foremost sexologists, point out the term fandui xingsaorao, or “anti-sexual harassment,” was in daily use in China by the late 20th century. The report also showed that more highly educated people and those in high-level occupations were both more likely to feel that they had experienced sexual harassment and more likely to report it.
This conclusion is borne out by Luo’s case and China’s campus anti-sexual harassment movement as a whole. The frequent reports of sexual harassment on college campuses nationwide does not necessarily mean it is more prevalent there than in any other walk of life. Rather, the number of reports indicates that the more highly educated the victim is, the more aware they are of harassment. Such women are also more likely to challenge traditional views on sex and gender and speak out about harassment when it occurs.
In addition, harassment in the education sector reflects the severe power imbalance that exists between Chinese teachers and their students. University advisors in China hold inordinate sway over their students’ future professional prospects. In the absence of a system designed to hold teachers accountable for their actions, it will remain challenging to prevent them from exploiting their students’ bodies and labor. The legal consequences of sexual harassment remain minimal and the steep hierarchies in Chinese academia make it difficult for students to escape from teachers who overstep the boundaries.
In the absence of detailed laws and regulations, what victims need isn’t bravery, but support. Calls to create a mechanism for preventing sexual harassment on campus date back to at least 2014, when an incident that has been called the “dawn of the anti-sexual harassment movement” occurred at Xiamen University in China’s southern province of Fujian. On Sept. 10 that year — Teachers’ Day in China — 256 academics put their names to two open letters sent to the school and the Ministry of Education, laying out a draft framework for a policy aiming to prevent and handle sexual harassment cases in tertiary education. The same month, the MoE published the so-called Seven Reds, a list of seven behaviors that all teachers should avoid, including subjecting students to sexual harassment and engaging in any “improper” relationships with students. But at present, these are the only guidelines governing sexual harassment against college students and have no legal backing.
But when we discuss sexual harassment, we mustn’t solely examine the supposed ethics of individual teachers. Doing so casts harassment as an issue of personal conduct and allows schools to shirk responsibility when it occurs. It is not only essential that every school in China has a robust system for dealing with harassment, but also important to provide both staff and students with sex and gender equality education, and anti-sexual harassment courses. Schools must also work to protect the privacy of victims and reduce the potential risk of retaliation.
Many top-tier universities overseas have sexual harassment prevention programs. For example, the University of California, Berkeley’s policies on sexual assault and harassment dovetail with state and federal laws, which provide the school with procedural support in its prevention, response, and assistance efforts. The policies stipulate that victims have a right to know if perpetrators will be punished, the school must report all sexual harassment incidents that occur either on campus or nearby, and all school employees must attend sexual harassment prevention training. Chinese colleges can learn from the examples of their international counterparts.
At present, punishments for sexual harassment in China are little more than a slap on the wrist and cases remain very difficult to prove. If we want to build mechanisms that combat sexual harassment by setting clear boundaries on behavior, mete out severe punishments for offenders, and have zero tolerance for the unwanted advances of senior professionals toward their juniors, society as a whole must come together and demand it. To paraphrase Luo, other countries are slowly making progress toward gender equality. There’s no reason to expect that China can’t do the same.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)