When Chinese journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin started her first job at a national news agency after graduating, she never thought she would one day have to kick a senior colleague in the crotch to keep him from attacking her in a hotel room.
Now, driven by this experience, the 29-year-old freelancer and Southern Metropolis Weekly special correspondent is trying to find out how many other female journalists have faced sexual harassment by running a nationwide online poll.
Huang told HKFP that she was inspired to do so after hearing similar stories from fellow journalists and noticing how the #MeToo movement sweeping through the west failed to arrive in China.
“Even with the news about sexual harassment spreading all over the world, in China it’s so silent… I was thinking: we also have the same problem – just because we keep silent doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen at all.”
The problem is rampant in China. A 2013 survey by Sunflower Women Workers Centre found that up to 70 per cent of female factory workers in Guangzhou have been sexually harassed. A 2009 study by two professors at Hong Kong’s City University found that 80 percent of working women in China had experienced sexual harassment at some point in their career.
Leta Hong Fincher, author of the upcoming book Betraying Big Brother: The Rise of China’s Feminist Resistance, told HKFP that, “as with most other countries, China has a very strong victim-blaming culture, which makes any woman reporting sexual harassment vulnerable to retaliation and misogynistic abuse, while the perpetrator generally will not be held accountable in any way.”
“In general, women still have relatively low consciousness about their rights and may not even be aware that sexual harassment is wrong,” she added.
The man who attacked Huang was also in a position of power over her at the time. In 2012, the newly-graduated Huang was in a batch of new employees at the agency, which she chose not to identify for fear of repercussions. The senior reporter was well-respected in the field, having covered big stories such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He gave her many opportunities, including the chance to interview some prominent figures visiting Shenzhen, which required her to travel to the southern city from her home in Guangzhou and spend the night in a hotel.
After the interview, the senior colleague asked if he could work in Huang’s room, and she agreed, thinking only of their tight deadline.
The advances started with him putting his hand on her lap. Then he started embracing her and kissing her, ignoring her discomfort and asking him to stop.
“When I felt him starting to move his lips to my mouth, I said: stop it. And he said: ‘Oh please, I don’t want to’ – something like that. And then I just kicked him, kicked his dick and I just ran,” Huang said.
Two of her friends – one of whom went to the hotel to stay with Huang that night – corroborated the story to HKFP.
Huang left her job a month later and – initially – did not publicly speak about her experience. However, last year, a 21-year-old female intern at the Guangdong paper Nanfang Daily told police that she had been raped by a senior reporter who was her mentor at the paper. The reporter was arrested on rape charges, but he was released a few months later, after prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence to proceed.
The story prompted Huang to act. She said that, previously, victim-blaming attitudes, combined with her attacker’s status and lack of evidence were reasons why she quit her job and stayed silent about the incident: “At that time, I just asked myself: did I do something wrong? Why did he do this to me? I blamed myself also.”
Huang calls the harassment of female journalists the “elephant in the room” within the industry. In her circle, five female journalists have left their jobs after experiencing harassment from male colleagues or superiors.
“Journalists in China are supposed to be more resourceful, more sensitive, more smart, and stand up for people’s rights. Yeah, we expose the violations of the rights of others, but when it comes to us, everyone just keeps silent, and people just quit their jobs.”
She wrote in an article: “There are many, many of these kinds of real stories, we have different personalities, and met with different kinds of harassment, but we made the same decision: remain silent and quit, even if we love our jobs.”
She recounted the experience of one friend, who often fended off male colleagues making sexual jokes or touching her back and thighs. She laughed off the increasingly uncomfortable conduct, thinking they were just jokes, until one day, it escalated further.
“On one business trip, one of her bosses who had been drinking started to undo his pants in front of her, and only then did she realise that it was gradually increasing sexual harassment, and she had let it happen. She quickly closed the door and cried for a whole night,” Huang wrote.
One of Huang’s friends and former colleagues who spoke on condition of anonymity told HKFP that she had also experienced sexual harassment while she was working at the same news agency, from a senior colleague who repeatedly called her and asked her to meet him in private.
Like Huang, she was also new in the industry, and had also quit without speaking out about the harassment, fearing it would affect her career.
“I didn’t dare face it… and he didn’t do anything serious, so I treated it as a kind of training to toughen myself and told myself it was no big deal to deal with this kind of thing.”
Huang chose to conduct the poll online so women would be protected by anonymity. In two weeks, she received over 200 responses from female journalists. An early snapshot of the responses shows that only 16 per cent of those surveyed had never experienced sexual harassment.
Of those who had experienced harrassment, o.5 percent said that they went to the police, and 3.6 per cent said they told upper management or their company’s HR department about the harassment.
After finding few online resources for victims in China, Huang started publishing her own articles on a WeChat public account, hoping to provide a way for victims to break their silence, connect them with resources for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, and fight for equal rights.
But she faces considerable obstacles in launching a public campaign. In 2015, a group of five feminists in China were detained for a month over their plans to stage protests against sexual harassment, with the case against them only dropped a year later.
“China is in the midst of a huge anti-feminist crackdown, so feminist activists who have tried to launch various campaigns against sexual harassment are often persecuted by the police, making it extremely difficult for a broad, anti-sexual harassment campaign to gain traction,” Hong Fincher said.
She added that more young women are speaking out about their experiences on social media, but internet censors often step in quickly to prevent a hashtag like #MeToo from going viral.
Huang describes the reaction to sexual harassment of journalists within the media industry itself as “ignoring the elephant in the room.” She tried to get her account of harassment published last year, but no outlet she approached would publish it.
She said that, at the time, some of her former bosses called her to express private support, but said they could not support her publicly, as speaking out about sexual harassment would negatively impact the media industry’s image.
“What kind of support is that?”