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2021-03-10 11:09:53

A Shanghai court ruled Monday that a man’s persistent inappropriate language toward his colleague constituted sexual harassment, the city’s first such judicial decision under China’s new civil code.

The Yangpu District People’s Court said the defendant should pay at least 98,000 yuan ($15,000) in compensation to the plaintiff for medical bills, lost wages, transportation expenses, legal fees, and mental distress, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported Monday.

In addition, the court ordered the defendant, identified by the pseudonym Xu Qiang, to issue a written apology to the plaintiff, Wang Li, also a pseudonym.

According to the report, Wang Li and Xu Qiang worked in the same department at an unidentified company. Beginning in August 2019, the defendant sent the plaintiff obscene and disturbing text messages — some referencing rape and suicide — on an almost daily basis.

In March of last year, Wang Li blocked Xu Qiang’s number and WeChat account on her phone and reported his behavior to the company. As punishment, he had to promise never to contact Wang Li again.

Two months later, Wang Li checked her blocked contacts log and saw that Xu Qiang had kept calling her. But rather than punish Xu Qiang more severely, the company merely asked him to sign a second pledge to leave Wang Li alone. In it, he wrote: “If there is further contact of any kind, I will resign according to whatever conditions the company sets and accept full legal responsibility.”

Still, the harassment continued.

Unable to cope, Wang Li requested medical leave from May 2020. She was reportedly diagnosed with depression and severe anxiety shortly afterward, and with support from her doctors and family members, she contacted the police.

In June 2020, Shanghai’s public security authorities issued an administrative punishment against Xu Qiang, detaining him for seven days and fining him 200 yuan. Wang Li then took him to court.

Li Mingxia, the plaintiff’s lawyer, told local paper Xinmin Evening News that Xu Qiang had been suspended from work for 10 months. The lawyer added that, based on her interactions with Wang Li, her client appeared to be suffering from lingering trauma.

Zhang Zongfa, a lawyer at Shanghai Baohua Law Firm who specializes in labor disputes, said the court’s ruling reflects a broader legal trend in China. “For the first time, the new civil code clarifies the characteristics and manifestations of sexual harassment at the national level,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “According to the evidence presented in the case, ‘digital harassment’ falls within the scope of violation, even without actual physical contact.”

Based on current judicial interpretations, it’s unclear what legal responsibility a company should bear for sexual harassment between coworkers.

Under China’s first-ever civil code, which came into effect in January, sexual harassment can take the form of spoken or written words, as well as images and physical actions. In such instances, “the victim has the right to request that the perpetrator bear civil responsibility,” the code says, though it does not indicate what the punishment should be.

The civil code also says companies may be held accountable for sexual harassment perpetrated by their employees, though it’s unclear from this week’s media reports whether the Shanghai court found sufficient cause to pursue this.

Under a 2012 regulation, companies in China already had a legal obligation to prevent workplace harassment. “But based on current judicial interpretations, it’s unclear what legal responsibility a company should bear for sexual harassment between coworkers,” Zhang said.

From his experience, Zhang feels the company’s handling of the recent case was relatively appropriate. “The company accepted Wang Li’s complaint, conducted an investigation, and imposed specific penalties,” the lawyer said. But he added that the company also could have done more to prevent harassment from happening under its watch in the first place — by promoting a clear guideline against such misconduct, for example.

Court officials told The Paper that this week’s case gives teeth to the civil code’s definition of sexual harassment as either physical or verbal, and should be viewed as a positive step toward protecting women’s rights.

On Chinese social media, many users have voiced their support for the court’s relatively severe penalty. “He should pay for what he has done, and other people should see how much it costs (to sexually harass someone)!” one person commented under The Paper’s post on microblogging platform Weibo.

Others have drawn attention to the difficulty of collecting evidence in cases of workplace sexual harassment. “Most harassment happens spontaneously, and these victims aren’t able to collect evidence with images or recordings,” another Weibo user wrote under a related media report.

Workplace sexual harassment has gained widespread public attention in recent years, but women seldom report such cases for various reasons, including privacy concerns, a sense of shame, or fear of professional repercussions, said the judge for the case, who has not been named in media reports.

“Many women who are victims of sexual harassment are trapped in disgusting, depressing work environments where they may feel great psychological pressure,” the judge told The Paper.

It is unclear whether Xu Qiang, the defendant, plans to appeal the decision.

This article has been updated to include an interview with lawyer Zhang Zongfa.

Contributions: Zhang Wanqing; editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: People Visual)