#MeToo movement goes global

Since October of 2017, a social media-driven movement against sexual harassment, known as the #MeToo movement, has triggered national debate by uncovering accusations against sexual predators, many of whom are prominent figures in their industries, from Hollywood to the Supreme Court. Originating in the United States, the #MeToo movement has now expanded and become a global phenomenon. Indian advocates for the #MeToo movement recently published a crowd-sourced list of sexual predators in academia that included the names of 69 professors — a list that sparked a debate about the ethics of publishing individual names on a public forum.

While the #MeToo Movement has caused introspection around the globe, it has also been met with backlash. The most interesting case, perhaps, is the #MeToo movement in China, where state censorship and the lack of rule of law create a unique set of difficulties for the movement to prevail.

Even though official data on sexual harassment in China is largely unavailable to the public, various think-tanks and NGOs have discovered the stunningly high prevalence of sexual misconduct. A survey in 2016, published by the NGO China Family Planning Association, found that a third of Chinese college students have been sexually harassed. One year later, a new study, conducted by the law firm Beijing Impact and the think tank Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, found that nearly 70 percent of Chinese university students had experienced sexual harassment. The Chinese magazine People asked its readership for personal narratives of their experiences with sexual harassment and assault and received more than 1,700 submissions within the first 24 hours; the site was shut down by the Chinese government. It is through the sheer number of reports, particularly among the younger generation of Chinese people, that the foundation for the #MeToo movement gained traction in China.

Repression of civil movement and state censorship

Chinese state censorship laws and the government’s habitual distrust of civil movements thwart any organizational structure that could address the #MeToo movement. In January 2017, the Overseas NGO Law came into effect, allowing the government to suspend NGOs associated with any foreign actors, especially those promoting civil movements. The Chinese government has also taken steps to strengthen government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) and reduced the efficacy of civil society groups that were deemed as challenging the legitimacy of the government.

In addition to pressure from on foreign NGOs broadly, endogenous feminist activist activities have also faced government resistance in establishing formal organizations and spreading their message to the general public. In 2015, five activists distributing flyers to educate people about sexual assault, known the Feminist Five, were arrested on the charge of disrupting public order. Their eventual release was only made possible through broad social pressure, from the domestic outcry on social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo to the international backlash best represented by a tweet from Hillary Clinton that explicitly condemned the Chinese government’s action.

The Chinese government has taken extensive measures to actively suppress the voices of individuals speaking out against sexual violence as well as those who advocate in favor of the #MeToo movement. This past March, WeChat and Weibo permanently suspended the popular account Feminist Voice, a main contributor in facilitating the discussion of the dangers of sexual assault, Chinese authorities have also removed most of the 77 million posts with the hashtag #MeToo on Weibo, reflecting a deep fear of civil organization and a potential internet dissent against the government. Hence, as a social media civil movement, the growth and effectiveness of the #MeToo in China are continuously hindered by the state.

Lack of legal framework

The Chinese legal system is also negligent in defining sexual assault in a legal context and in making adequate rulings to either prevent or punish sexual assault. Although sexual assault is highly prevalent, few victims are willing to bring their cases before courts. Out of 50 million court verdicts from 2010 to 2017, only 34 cases are centered around sexual harassment. From those 34, 32 cases were actually brought by alleged harassers, who claimed breach of employment contract or defamation caused by their victims. In the allegation against the famous CCTV broadcaster Zhu Jun, who allegedly sexually harassed an intern, sued his victim on the account of defamation of character. The remaining two cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. The dissonance between the large number of sexual assault victims in Chinese society and poor legal precedent indicates the challenges facing victims seeking redress in instances of abuse through courts.

China still has a long way to go in terms of creating an effective legal mechanism for victims of sexual assault. Article 40 of the PRC Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights explicitly prohibits sexual harassment and gives victims a right to file complaints at the workplace, but does not provide the exact definition of sexual harassment. The 2012 Special Provisions on Labor Protection for Female Employees obliges employers “to incorporate measures to prevent and stop sexual harassment into its internal policies and daily management,” but does not specify what qualifies as effective measures toward that goal. The law should require employers to implement preventive training and to establish formal channels for reporting abuse in firms, as well as specify that employers that fail to do so may be legally liable, the case in the U.S. China is crafting a new Draft Civil Code now, and according to the state-owned media Xinhua, the new law will include one section that addresses sexual harassment. However, the details are still unclear at this moment.

Final thoughts

Taking state censorship as a given, many activists are finding new ways to circumvent it and continue advocating their ideas. As soon as the state censored the hashtag “#MeToo,” Internet activists came up with the new icon of “rice bunny” (in Chinese, pronounced “mi-tu,” roughly the same as “me too” in English) to continue championing their cause. Some activist groups, keenly aware of the government’s fear of organized social movements, put up slogans that integrate Mao and Xi’s speeches to specify their goals as “not motivated by foreign power, not [to start] a revolution, and not to make other political demands.” Although the state censorship truncates and eliminates online debates where it can, the continuous efforts by activists and increasing awareness among the public are this situation’s silver lining.

Not all government response to the Chinese #MeToo movement has been negative. The province of Jiangsu, for instance, introduced a new sexual harassment rule that establishes an affirmative duty for companies to make preventive rules for sexual harassment in the workplace, which is the first law of its kind in China. Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong also enacted specific provisions to tackle the issue. While these local governments took local action on their own, other regions still need effective provisions. Currently, the legal provisions are uneven across the country. Earlier this year, Guangzhou introduced China’s first women-only subway cars as a way to tackle sexual assaults in the public transportation system. The #MeToo movement has been successful in toppling powerful figures as well. Additionally, the head monk of the powerful Buddhist Association of China was alleged to have harassed female disciples. He later became one of the highest-profile figures brought down by the #MeToo in China.

While there is clearly a long way to go in remedying the circumstances of sexual harassment, assault, and violence in China, it is important to be able to recognize some of the successes the #MeToo movement has had, though they are few and far between. It is the brutal combination of repression through censorship of the media and a negligent legal framework that stunts the growth of the #MeToo movement in China. It is important that social activists and the general public come together to work on finding new ways to combat the real problem of sexual violence in the country. Nothing will change unless the people will it — thus, finding new ways to champion for a safe environment without the fear of sexual assault or retribution against victims should be the primary focus of advocates.