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How China’s feminists launched #MeToo in a country where protest is barely possible

How China’s feminists launched #MeToo in a country where protest is barely possible
Zhang Leilei, a feminist activist in Guangzhou, southern China, wears a poster against groping on buses and trains after authorities refused permission to post a billboard in the subway. When people shared her photos on social media, police told her to leave the city. (Zhang Leilei)

Dressed in black, Li Yiyi sat on a ledge on the eighth floor of a downtown office building, staring at her cellphone as people on social media urged her to jump.

Her life had started unraveling two years before when a schoolteacher forced himself on her, kissing and fondling her as he tried to pull off her clothes. Once an ambitious, talkative 16-year-old with plans to attend a top university in China, she dropped out of school, retreated inward and settled for a job as a shop assistant. Her father tried without success to get authorities to pursue criminal charges against the teacher.

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“She was a very open-minded and positive person, but she seemed to change into a completely different person after the incident happened,” said Li Yifei, her 28-year-old cousin who had raced to the building in downtown Gansu when he saw that she had posted a suicide message on social media.

When he arrived, Li Yiyi was clinging to the ledge by her hands. A fireman tried to coax her down. Instead she let go.

Li Yiyi’s death in June underscored again the long road ahead for the embryonic #MeToo movement in China, where gender inequality is still deeply entrenched and social protest is swiftly stifled.

“I was so sad,” Wan Miaoyan, a commercial lawyer in China who also handles sexual harassment and domestic violence cases, said of Li Yiyi’s death. “But during my research on the history of setting up laws and regulations against sexual harassment around the world, there was always blood and lives lost in the process, and that is the cost.

“That is why I wish China could introduce laws so that cases like Li Yiyi’s do not happen.”

Employers, universities and even police are generally reluctant to get involved in sexual harassment cases in China and assailants are rarely charged and often never punished, leaving few women bold enough to speak out. When five women tried to organize multi-city protests in 2015 to focus attention on unwanted groping on buses and trains, they were arrested and jailed for more than five weeks for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

Yet there is evidence of progress. A prominent Buddhist monk, a university professor, the founder of a well-known charity, an environmental activist, a famous state television host, two badminton coaches and several journalists have all been accused of sexual harassment in recent months, with the accusations spreading rapidly on Chinese social media, though state censors usually quash the messages quickly.

When censors in China banned the #MeToo hashtag, activists came up with imaginative ways to get around the ban, using the characters “rice bunny,” pronounced “mi tu,” to tag posts or by using the emojis for a bowl of rice and a rabbit.

Though victims are often pressured to remain silent, Wan believes public awareness of sexual harassment is growing and pressure is building in China to finally create a clear criminal law banning sexual harassment. In a 2016 online survey of 6,592 university students, 70% reported being sexually harassed. A survey of female factory workers three years earlier by a labor rights group, the Sunflower Women Workers Center in Guangzhou, found the same thing.

Wan now is handling a case she believes could mark a turning point for the #MeToo movement in China.

In December, Nanchang University, in Jiangxi province, dismissed two professors, one of whom is accused of raping a student in 2016 and the other accused of discouraging the student from reporting the incident. The professors were fired a day after details of the case began swirling on Chinese social media.

Now Wan is suing the professors and school for damages of about $21,000 on behalf of the student, far more than the few hundred dollars awarded in the handful of successful sexual harassment cases to date.

“In some countries victims get significant compensation. Here, we’re just starting,” she said. “I will really put a lot of effort and thought into this case. It’s really important to win. It would mean that institutions would start to take responsibility.”

One of the earliest sexual harassment scandals in China emerged in 1998 after a 21-year-old student, Gao Yan, committed suicide. She’d alleged she was raped by a professor at prestigious Peking University, Shen Yang, now 62. He denied the allegations. At the time, the university quietly gave him a demerit on his employment record, a minor administrative punishment.

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Two decades later, the case drew renewed anger when it surfaced on Chinese social media. In response, the professor’s two current employers, Shanghai Normal University and Nanjing University, fired him.

One thing slowing the #MeToo movement in China is the lack of a clear legal definition of sexual harassment. Of the more than 50 million legal cases that were filed between 2010 and 2017, only two were brought by women alleging they were victims of sexual harassment.

The Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, which supports victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, is now pushing for a national law to define and ban sexual harassment and discrimination against women and, for the first time, the government is actually drafting a measure that would require employers to take steps to discourage harassment in any form. Activists, though, say that doesn’t go far enough and want perpetrators to face the risk of criminal charges.

China’s intolerance for activism has also likely slowed the #MeToo movement.

When a famous state TV host, Zhu Jun, was accused by a former station intern of sexual harassment in a social media post last month, censors swiftly eliminated any social media references to #MeToo or “Zhu Jun.”

The intern posted that she was asked to take fruit to Zhu’s room, where he attempted to molest her and boasted that he had the influence to get her a job at the station. She said her supervisor pressured her not to go to the police.

State media then were ordered to “immediately delete all information related to Zhu Jun” and “leave no area neglected,” according to a notice published by California-based China Digital Times. Two days later, a notice went out warning state media not to “hype” coverage of the #MeToo movement.

Last year, activist Zhang Leilei had no hope that a campaign against sexual harassment in China would ever take hold. "But this year you can see the #MeToo movement is really thriving. It’s the people, especially women, who have taken this movement to the next level.”
Last year, activist Zhang Leilei had no hope that a campaign against sexual harassment in China would ever take hold. "But this year you can see the #MeToo movement is really thriving. It’s the people, especially women, who have taken this movement to the next level.” (Zhang Leilei)

Zhang Leilei, a feminist activist in Guangzhou, southern China, ran up against the limits of official tolerance last year when she and other activists crowd-funded a project to put up a billboard in the local subway protesting sexual groping.

When she was 12, Zhang said, she was riding home on the school bus when a middle-aged man pushed himself up against her so hard she couldn’t pull free.

“He was just standing there and smiling and really creepy. He was not even nervous. I was really afraid.” She said she was groped other times as well, once in a bookstore. Victim-blaming is so entrenched in China, she said, that it took her years to realize she was not at fault.

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Now emboldened enough to fight for reform, she and other activists raised almost $6,500 for a subway billboard that showed a female hand with bright red fingernails blocking a male’s groping hand with the slogan: “Temptation is no excuse. Stop the wandering hands.” Authorities said the image could cause public anxiety and rejected the design.

When the women redesigned the sign with a cat’s paw and a pig foot, authorities told her that only government agencies and companies could put billboard advertisements in the subway.

So Zhang dyed her hair pink, donned a pink tutu, pink T-shirt and pink plastic slippers and photographed herself at locations across the city holding up a smaller version of the billboard and posted the images online, urging others to do the same.

“It was the only thing I had left. Whenever I went outside, I carried the billboard with me.”

She said more than 100 supporters in 20 different areas of China posted her photos, enough to attract official attention.

“I intended to do it every day for a month. But after two weeks the police came to my house and told me to stop.”

She said the police, who had made warning visits to her home before, asked her to leave the city for at least six months.

Instead, she moved elsewhere in the city. Police then called her parents and uncle, reporting that she was “causing trouble.”

“It’s difficult to be a feminist in China,” she said.

The fight for change, Zhang said, will be long.

“Last year I felt really frustrated and I felt no hope,” she said. “But this year you can see the #MeToo movement is really thriving. It’s the people, especially women, who have taken this movement to the next level.”

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