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    China Moves Toward Ban on Japanese-Style ‘Maid Cafés’

    A Chinese court has ruled that the controversial businesses violate women’s right to personal dignity.
    Apr 18, 2024#law & justice

    Japanese-style “maid cafés” have become a common sight in China’s major cities over the past few years. But the future of these controversial businesses is now under threat, after a Chinese court ruled that they are illegal on multiple grounds.

    Maid cafés — venues where male customers are served by female staff, usually dressed in skimpy outfits — first became popular in China in the late 2010s. Though they are no longer as fashionable as they were then, there are still thousands of them operating all over the country.

    The original case against maid cafés was brought by a local procuratorate in the eastern city of Yiwu, which launched a large-scale investigation in the wake of a sexual assault case in a local venue in 2023.

    Local officials found that hundreds of cafés and e-sports venues in Yiwu were offering maid café-style services, with female servers forced to kneel to serve tea, massage male customers, and shout “Welcome home, my master!” to anyone entering.

    The procuratorate brought a public interest lawsuit to a local court, arguing that such services “belittle and damage women’s rights to human dignity.” They also said that some local businesses had failed to take measures to protect their female staff from sexual harassment.

    The court ruled in favor of the procuratorate in late 2023, and local businesses were ordered to cease offering maid services or face closure. Over the following months, Yiwu authorities reportedly investigated over 800 businesses to ensure they had complied.

    Now, this case looks set to become a model for other Chinese cities to follow. Earlier this week, China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate published a list of 12 cases for prosecutors nationwide to learn from, which included the maid café ruling in Yiwu.

    The list — which the procuratorate released jointly with the All-China Women’s Federation and All-China Federation of Trade Unions — covers a wide range of issues, including the handling of sexual harassment and assault cases, differing standards for male and female toilets, and the denial of land rights to women in rural China.

    Maid cafés have been controversial in China ever since the industry first started to take off, with detractors arguing that they degrade women and in some cases become hotbeds of sexual harassment. But they still have many fans; content related to maid cafés regularly attracts massive traffic on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, and the video platform Bilibili.

    Chen Qianyi, a gender equality advocate from the southern Hainan province, told Sixth Tone that she had been “waiting for maid cafés to face this specific restriction since 2018.”

    “Maid cafés have been a symbolic space where women are defaulted to being the subject of sexual exploitation,” Chen said. “The key to solving this problem should be educating the public to respect women.”

    In a comment on the Yiwu case, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate said that it should serve as a model for other cities because local prosecutors took swift action despite facing a difficult situation: Maid cafés are a new industry subject to little specific regulation and control, meaning that rights infringements were often passing unnoticed.

    China’s revised women’s rights protection law, which came into effect in 2023, has given prosecutors new powers by clarifying that violating women’s right to personal dignity is also illegal. In the past year, more than 46,000 people have been prosecuted in China for violating women’s rights to life, health, and personal dignity, a year-over-year increase of 10.7%, according to official data.

    (Header image: IC)