The Movement Shattering China’s Culture of Silence
SHANGHAI — Just two weeks after Steffi started her new job at a small literary organization, her boss complimented her looks and invited her to a party. Then he told her he was divorced and lonely. She wasn’t too worried until she heard whispers from other women at the office that he often asked to see them outside of work. The man was the company’s founder, Pan Xueguang.
In January 2017 — only a month after she had joined The Poem For You — Steffi quit after a colleague was fired for accusing Pan of sexual harassment: He had repeatedly asked her out to dinner, concerts, and other social activities. “There were no measures at all for preventing sexual harassment in the company,” says Steffi, now 25. “Whenever there was a problem, the employee would be fired.”
China’s movement against sexual harassment is gathering steam. In the past, the university campus was the epicenter of activism, but in the last few weeks, dozens of new accusations have been aired against high-profile figures in public welfare, media, and other sectors.
Steffi — an online handle she uses as her pseudonym — decided it was time to expose what she and her colleagues had encountered, and last Wednesday she posted their stories on social platform Weibo, along with screenshots of chat logs. Her post was shared over 5,000 times on Weibo alone, and 25 women contacted her to say they had had similar experiences with Pan: They said he was overly intimate, touching their faces or hands, or asking to visit them at home. But she also got a letter from Pan’s lawyer demanding that she delete her post or face a defamation lawsuit.
“I’ll wait for him to file the lawsuit,” Steffi tells Sixth Tone at a downtown café. Despite other customers nearby, her voice is loud and firm. On the table, her phone lights up regularly with new messages, mostly from a chat group of women who say they were also harassed by Pan.
On the same day that Steffi posted on Weibo, Chinese magazine Portrait launched an online survey on sexual harassment and assault. In less than 24 hours, 1,724 people submitted their anonymous stories. A woman said that she had been repeatedly molested as a child by her cousins. A man said that his father used to press against him and kiss him. A student said her tutor sexually assaulted her for five years, but her parents chose to remain silent to “protect her reputation.” Only 20 respondents said they reported the cases to police.
Many of these stories being shared have not been verified, but the volume of people speaking candidly about sex, gender, and power is unprecedented. By last Thursday, Weibo discussions surrounding #MeToo had been viewed over 70 million times before content relating to the topic was deleted. Starting with the academic world last year, the trickle of accusations has turned into a torrent, sweeping through the worlds of advocacy, media, literature, entertainment, and religion.
As the movement pushes forward, it is fraught with arguments about whether it will lead to false accusations and trial by media. A viral and controversial comment from famed political theorist Liu Yu compared the movement to the social climate of the revolutionary era, when the Hundred Flowers Campaign initially encouraged everyone to express their opinions but quickly turned against dissenting views. She added that posting on the internet should only be a last resort if attempts to pursue legal action fail.
But lawyer Li Ying tells Sixth Tone that the surge of online accusations has burst China’s long-standing culture of silence. The question that should be asked, she says, is why so many people turn to social media. “It’s partly due to deficiencies in existing law,” says Li, who serves as director of the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center.
Sexual harassment is still a relatively new and underdeveloped area of law in China. The country’s first reported sexual harassment lawsuit was in 2001, when a female employee at a state-owned enterprise in the northwestern province of Shaanxi accused her manager of groping her and offering to transfer her to a better role if she had sex with him. At the time, “sexual harassment” was not defined by Chinese law. Though the court ruled against the woman’s claim, citing insufficient evidence, the case sparked public discussion on the need for legislation on sexual harassment.
In 2005, the term “sexual harassment” was included into the revised Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests, which simply stated that sexual harassment of women was prohibited. But 13 years later, although some provinces have published their own explanations of the term, a clear and unified definition of sexual harassment still does not exist at the national level, and legislation only covers female victims.
“It is difficult to gather evidence in an intimate space of two people. But the court does not recognize [sexual harassment] unless there is very strong evidence,” says Li. For victims, she explains, filing a lawsuit is costly and complex, yet few cases are prosecuted, and prosecutions rarely result in serious penalties.
In one case she dealt with, Li says her client suffered serious post-traumatic stress disorder and could no longer continue working full-time after the perpetrator forcibly kissed and groped her, and she received just 10,000 yuan ($1,500) in compensation. Winning a court case does not necessarily help victims heal, and requires exposing themselves to stigma, risk, and further trauma.
“Many people working in the justice system have a poor understanding of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence,” Li says. “Though there have been improvements in protecting minors, I don’t think there is enough awareness when it comes to protecting adult female victims. Many people feel they are harmed a second time [during the police investigation].” She says that nationally, there are no specific legal provisions for protecting the confidentiality of adult victims in such cases.
Few companies have a protocol for preventing or responding to workplace sexual harassment because it is not required by law. When Li and her colleagues tried to promote workplace anti-harassment policies 10 years ago, many companies worried that establishing a protocol would only cause people to suspect that the company had had sexual harassment problems in the past. A decade later, the situation has not substantially improved, though companies seeking international cooperation, or those whose leaders are personally aware of gender issues, are more open to the idea.
Li believes the absence of such workplace protocols silences victims: “If there are no effective mechanisms protecting an employee’s rights, the employee faces a high risk of retaliation, or of their personal information being leaked, which makes it impossible for them to stay at the company,” she explains.
Concrete action at a national level has come slowly. In January of this year, following several high-profile allegations against academics, the Ministry of Education promised to issue a “long-acting” mechanism to prevent campus sexual harassment. Though many universities have taken action in response to charges against their staff, often sexual harassment and assault — even rape — are euphemized as moral misconduct or violations of teaching ethics.
“Despite the shock that the movement has brought to public opinion, there remain deficiencies in legislation,” Li says. Rather than pursuing a criminal case or compensation, most people say they spoke out just to expose the ugliness of the person who harmed them.
In a statement Pan sent to Sixth Tone, he neither confirms nor denies the accusations against him. Instead, he writes that he hopes Steffi will “prove the so-called injustice through legal procedure, instead of sweeping everything under the banner of justice and involving innocent people.”
But Steffi says she will not file a lawsuit against Pan because she believes it would probably fail. Most of the women who contacted her say they had experienced relatively mild harassment, such as Pan stroking their cheeks — unwanted advances that made them uncomfortable, but which were not sexually explicit.
“I dared to stand out because he did not harm me in a serious way,” says Steffi. “If he had, the sense of shame would have discouraged me from speaking up.”
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Yonhap News Agency/VCG)