HKFP Voices LGBTQ & Gender Politics & Protest

To call sexual harassment a western phenomenon is presumptuous and simply untrue

By Lotus Ruan

It is appalling to read an opinion piece recently published in China Daily, titled “Weinstein case demonstrates cultural differences.” In the article, the author asked and China Daily tweeted, rhetorically, “What prevents sexual harassment from becoming a common phenomenon in China, as it is in most Western societies?”

According to the author, it is because “Chinese traditional values and conservative attitudes tend to safeguard women against inappropriate behaviour from members of the opposite gender.”

Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein. Photo: Wikicommons.

Put aside the author’s answer, the question in itself is presumptuous and simply not true. Just take a look at a recent case at an annual party at Tencent, one of China’s largest internet company and creator of popular chat apps QQ and WeChat, that went wrong.

At its 2017 annual party, Tencent designed a horribly sexist and sexual game at its 2017 annual party. A six-second footage shows female employees on their knees, trying to use their mouths to open water bottles gripped between male co-workers’s thighs.

On Zhihu, China’s Quora-like service, users who claimed to be former Tencent employees implied that it was not the only instance of implicitly sexual games at the workplace. Material rewards were allegedly used to incentive female and sometimes male employees to partake in those games. A simple search of sexual harassment cases (性骚扰案例) in China would have returned thousands of results in addition to the Tencent case.

Or we could talk statistics.

Public transportation: According to a survey by China Youth Daily in August 2017, 53.5 per cent of female respondents reported that either they or their friends had experienced sexual harassment on the subway.

street harassment

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Workplace: A 2013 survey of female factory workers in Guangzhou, southern city in China, found that up to 70 per cent of them had experienced sexual harassment from co-workers, which ranged from offensive jokes to physical touching. About one in six felt no choice but to leave their jobs to escape these harassments.

School: You would have thought the “Ivory Tower” would be safer. Wrong. In September 2016, All-China Women’s Federation released results of a multi-university survey, showing that nearly 60 per cent of female in colleges had been sexually harassed — some multiple times. Most respondents considered the situation “serious” or “very serious.”

In July 2014, Wu Chunming, a history professor in Xiamen University, one of China’s top universities, was found guilty of sexually harassing multiple female students. However, a year later, Wu seemed unaffected by the scandal and returned to the public scene as a committee member for a Hubei-based archaeology-related association.

Sex crimes: While a United Nations report based on police records or rapes from 2003 to 2012 showed that the incidence of rape in China (2.1 per 100,000 people) was not as high as that in “Western societies” (US:26.6; UK: 23.2), it overlooked the fact that many of sexual abuses went unreported or ignored in China.

According to a 2013 survey on sex crimes in the Asia Pacific region, 22.7 percent of Chinese males said they had raped a woman. Only 24.9 per cent of those accused of committing sex crimes were arrested, compared with an average of 32.5 per cent in other countries.

Different from Western societies? Maybe

I tend to agree that when it comes to sexual harassment, there are differences in China and Western societies. Not that it’s “less common” but that many people are so unaware of and uneducated about the concept that they do not even realise they are sexually harassing someone.

china women's day

China Women’s Day banners. Photo: Weibo.

While the International Women’s Day is set to commemorate the movement for women’s rights, its “college version” in China, dubbed “Girl’s Day”, seems to have turned into a downward spiral. Male students hang up sexually explicit or suggestive banners in universities in the name of “celebrating Girl’s Day.”

China did not introduce the term “sexual harassment” to its law until 2005. However, till today, what constitutes “sexual harassment” and what punishment should be enforced accordingly have  not yet been specifically defined in national laws and regulations.

The most detailed explanation of sexual harassment might be the local government guideline published by Beijing municipality, in which it says, “Sexually harassing women via sexual content or sex-related language, images, electronic messages and body language against their will shall be forbidden.” But the guideline has not specified any sexual harassment-related punishment.

Last December, a manager at a Beijing branch of China Minsheng Bank was reported to have sexually harassed his female employee by sending her sexually suggestive content on WeChat. The manager threatened to fire the female employee if she did not cooperate and go “drink tea” at a hotel with him.

After the news broke, a discipline director at China Minsheng Bank’s Beijing branch responded, “The interaction between these two people was limited only to those on WeChat and they did not lead to actual relationships.” The manager was only temporarily suspended while the female employee ended up leaving her job.

The Real Question

In response to the Harvey Weinstein case and to the author of the China Daily opinion piece, the real follow-up question should be: What prevents women and oftentimes men from speaking up and advocating against sexual harassment in China?

Aside from the universal challenges for sexual harassment cases such as blaming the victimsproviding evidence and victims being silenced, women’s rights activists in China also face a particular pressure from the government. It is true that law enforcement has launched multiple campaigns to stop sexual harassment in daily life, however, any bottom-up approach to address the problem is highly restricted, if not forbidden, in China.

feminist five

The ‘Feminist Five’. Photo: RFA.

In March 2015, for example, the police in China detained over 10 young women’s rights activists who started a nationwide campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation around the International Women’s Day. Five of them were later put under formal detention on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事), a “pocket crime” (口袋罪) that have been exploited by authorities to quell activism in the country.

Supporters of these activists were also briefly detained or dissuaded from doing any kind of petitioning work. It was under a great amount of domestic and international pressure that authorities finally released the five young female activists — five weeks after detention.

So yes, it is true that some of the traditional Chinese thoughts are “based upon commendable values and virtues that respect the dignity and humanity of its citizens, regardless of their gender. ” But by no stretch of the imagination should one think that these textbook values somehow “prevent sexual harassment from becoming a common phenomenon in China.”

Lotus Ruan is a Toronto-based researcher who primarily investigates information controls and cybersecurity issues. She frequently writes about Chinese politics, technology, and social issues. Follow Lotus on Twitter, or on her “Think Big” blog. 

Update: China Daily’s op-ed and tweet were deleted on Tuesday evening.

To call sexual harassment a western phenomenon is presumptuous and simply untrue