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‘A breach of boundaries’: the fight against sexual harassment at a Hong Kong church group

Minnie Li sat down one evening in November last year to write – not an academic paper, as she often does as a lecturer, but something personal. “He became more aggressive after the first time he was rejected by me,” she began. It was the first of five long social media posts detailing seven years of sexual harassment at the hands of a member of a church organisation that she thought she could trust.

Long before the #MeToo movement swept across the world last year, bringing to light a host of sexual abuse allegations, Li faced her abuses alone. She had arrived in Hong Kong in 2008 and joined the Christian youth organisation Breakthrough as a volunteer soon after. There she met Chen (not his real name) – a bespectacled man who was employed to manage a youth group within the organisation. Soon after that, the harassment began.

Prayer

Photo: Pixabay.

It started with a prayer. Chen took Li by the hand and pleaded with her to join him in what she described as a “very long prayer,” after which he took her by the shoulder and pulled her in for a tight embrace. She quickly pushed him away, furious, and lost for words. In other instances, he would tickle her around the waist, make lewd comments about her physical appearance and, on more than one occasion, lunge to kiss her. “I felt all kinds of emotions arise: anger, self-reproach, disgust, sorrow,” she said.

#MeToo spread across Twitter last year after a number of high-profile celebrities encouraged survivors to tweet about their experiences with sexual harassment, so as to highlight the magnitude of the problem. As the movement began to take hold in Hong Kong, Li took matters into her own hands, publishing a scathing essay on sexual harassment at Breakthrough to Facebook. This was shortly before a Hong Kong hurdler came forward with allegations that she had been assaulted by a former coach when she was a junior secondary school student. 

Li soon found out that she was not the only one targeted by Chen.

A trickle becomes a flood

“I too was harassed by the same scumbag,” Faye Yung wrote in a private message to Li a day after her social media post; as an employee of Youth Global Network (YGN) – a break off organisation under Breakthrough – she had lost count of how many times she had been beleaguered by Chen. “Not that it mattered,” she added.

One time, in 2016, he had followed her down the steps of a library and attempted to tickle her. “You’ve gotten really thin,” he said before she pushed him off. A few months later, she was sat in a canteen wearing a black one-piece that revealed a cut on her thigh. Chen scanned her from head to toe. “Oh, you’re hurt there,” he said, pointing to the wound. “Where are you looking?” Yung snapped, causing the people on their table to turn around, shocked at her reaction.

Minnie Li

Minnie Li. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Li’s story caught public attention after it was republished by a local media outlet. Her inbox began to fill up with more accusations as four other women, who wished to remain anonymous, came forward with their allegations against Chen. They ranged from inappropriate remarks to groping. A few days later, board members at Breakthrough organised conciliation meetings with Li and Yung to assure them that appropriate measures were being taken to deal with their harasser and that an anti-sexual harassment policy would be established at their request. Chen quietly resigned from the church organisation soon after. No reason was provided as to why he had left.

For the women, it appeared that justice was on the horizon. But beyond the vista lay a sea of resistance that none of them could have anticipated.

‘They refuse to call a spade a spade’

YGN announced in January that it had revamped its sexual harassment reporting policy, with only one problem – there was no mention of the term “sexual harassment.” The policy only mentioned “harassment.” Again, in a verdict handed down in October at the end of an 11-month internal investigation into Yung’s allegations, Breakthrough did not use the term “sexual harassment.” The organisation instead opted for the phrase “a breach of boundaries between genders,” according to Yung.

“They refuse to call a spade a spade, and I refuse to accept that,” Yung told HKFP. She fought back tears in a meeting with the organisation in which the outcome of their investigation was delivered. “They already had a verdict that they were unwilling to change, so it was a waste of time,” she said. “Basically the meeting was not for the purposes of communication, because there was no communication.”

While #MeToo has become a rallying cry against a culture that masks sexual assault behind abusive power dynamics, it has also raised more nuanced conversations about our social interactions. And for those affected by sexual abuse, the words attached to those discussions are important. For the women of Breakthrough, “sexual harassment” is not merely a descriptive term; it has real implications on how they collectively identify what has happened to them. Taking away this term is, in effect, silencing them. This, Li and Yung say, is unacceptable.

Faye Yung

Faye Yung. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Yung rejected the findings of the investigation and now her and Li find themselves stuck in a deadlock with an organisation that refuses to recognise sexual harassment for what it is. 

But they are not completely alone in their appeal to have their experiences legitimised through the appropriate use of language. The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) guide to formulating policies on sexual harassment for social services agencies advises organisations to include the term in its policies: “The policy should explain the definition of sexual harassment in plain and simple language,” it says. 

And for good reason: the EOC received 59 sexual harassment complaints under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance in 2015, rising to 87 in 2016, 86 in 2017 and, from January to October this year, it has handled 108 complaints, indicating a 20 per cent increase from the previous year so far.

In addition to this, 1,019 indecent assault cases were reported to the police in 2016, compared with 1,077 in 2017, and 749 from January to August in 2018, according to crime statistics. The numbers indicate a slight increase in the number of reports over the three-year period. In comparison, the number of people arrested for indecent assault rose from 757 in 2016 to 791 in 2017 and stands at 523 from January to August 2018.

A spokesperson from local anti-sexual violence NGO RainLily told HKFP that Hong Kong society lives in a culture that enables sexual abuse and that churches are no exception: “We reckon sexual harassment in churches or religious institutions is just as common as in other social settings,” they said. “[But] there’s a mixture of the traditional Chinese concept of viewing sex as a topic of taboo and churches’ unifying characteristics which prevents its members speaking out against their own collective.”

The organisation added it has received more than 50 cases dealing with sexual harassment in churches since 2000.

Breakthrough Shatin

Breakthrough’s Youth Village in Sha Tin. Photo: inmediahk.net.

A survey conducted by the Hong Kong Christian Council from August last year to April of this year found that 55 respondents had experienced sexual harassment at their local churches – over half of them at the hands of a church leader or employee and 35 per cent from another churchgoer.

The study was released in June, shortly after pastor Ngai Lap-yin of the Brotherly Love Swatow Baptist Church admitted to sexually harassing female worshippers while under the pretence of a father figure.

Blurring the lines between courtship and assault

In June, an email appeared in Yung’s inbox titled “My apology.” It was sent from an unknown address and signed off “A Gong.” Yung instantly knew that it was a pseudonym for Chen. “Sorry, I hurt you,” it began. “My behaviour has violated the boundaries between men and women.”

This boundary, he argued, was precarious. And only now had he realised his wrongdoing.

An author in Christian Weekly, a newspaper run by the Hong Kong Chinese Christian Church union, responded similarly to Li and Yung’s stories in an article published on November 11, saying “But the boundary between men and women can be vague, sometimes it’s as difficult as telling white from black.” He added: “So there are negative terms associated with courtship, such as ‘rude’ and ‘indecent.’ But there are also terms such as ‘flirtation’ and ‘romantic’.”

In an audio recording of an October meeting, heard by HKFP, the verdict of Breakthrough’s internal investigation was delivered to Yung. A committee member was recorded saying: “His behaviour is clearly inappropriate… but sexual harassment is hard to define.”

Li and Yung have accused Breakthrough of minimising their traumatic experiences by excusing predatory behaviour as rebuffed romantic gestures. They added that Chen is a member of a prominent family, which has cushioned the blow of the accusations.

“There’s a lot of nurturing and favouritism shown to him so, from Minnie’s words, when her story came out, nobody contacted her but they rushed to contact [him] and ask him how he’s doing,” Yung explained.

Faye Yung Minnie Li Breakthrough

Faye Yung and Minnie Li at a protest outside Breakthrough’s Youth Village in Sha Tin. Photo: inmediahk.net.

This preferential treatment is indicative of a power imbalance that the #MeToo movement is trying to address. It is one that favours the accused while belittling the accusations of those targeted.

“There are other victims that are not willing to speak up because they don’t have a trustworthy system,” Yung told HKFP. “It is exactly because when they speak up, they will be scrutinised, their integrity will be questioned and, in the end, [Breakthrough] will say that ‘yeah something bad happened to you, but it’s OK’.”

From their perspective, solving the problem is making us feel better so that we’re not hurt anymore so that we shut up,” Li added.

Democratic party lawmaker Helena Wong, who is a former chairperson of the Hong Kong Women’s Christian Council, echoed this sentiment: “Whenever we have victims who are courageous enough to bring up the issues, usually they will find a lot of resistance, from the institutions and churches, making them feel rather vulnerable and helpless.”

One in seven women in Hong Kong will experience sexual violence in her lifetime, but nine out of ten will choose not to report it, according to NGO the Women’s Foundation Hong Kong, who added that 80 per cent of perpetrators are people the victim knows, including friends and family

“The reason for the high non-reporting rates are similar to other parts of the world: victim-blaming, entrenched gender stereotypes, which includes unconscious biases against women, especially survivors; power imbalances; fear of speaking up; and systemic shortcomings the make it difficult for survivors to take action or speak out,” the NGO said.

‘Deal with it behind closed doors’

But beyond seeking justice against Chen, Li and Yung are trying to tackle a church culture that attempts to keep sexual harassment claims within the confines of the organisation.

Breakthrough Shatin

Breakthrough’s Youth Village in Sha Tin. Photo: inmediahk.net.

“There’s always one person who we should have talked to but didn’t,” Li said, adding that the burden of seeking justice is often solely placed on the accusers.

“The whole culture, generally, of how churches or Christian organisations deal with things, they have this concept of speaking to an elder,” Yung explained. “The elder will help you solve all problems, like, deal with it behind closed doors. It’s something that should happen within the church family.”

This culture, she continued, disempowers the accusers. “Especially in church settings, where they can always bring up a lot of religious doctrines to overwhelm you and they can always gain the holy ground,” she said. “That is inherently unfair to have a dialogue, so we don’t want that.”

A spokesperson for RainLily told HKFP that although sexual harassment is rife in every sector of society, churches are particularly prone to minimising the impact of the accusations by labelling the accusers as troublemakers: “Then when one person voices out about ‘scandalous’ incidents like sexual violence, dismissal becomes a very easy way out for… the institution,” the spokesperson said.

Pushing back against tradition

In spite of the backlash, Li and Yung are resolute in their fight for justice. “We’re not just fighting this one organisation but the whole culture of the church and how they deal with sexual offences,” Yung explained. “They downplay the seriousness of this person’s actions. It reflects a culture that would excuse the accused easily.”

Their campaign urges Breakthrough to establish a proper reporting protocol with guidelines that clearly state the term “sexual harassment.” They also call upon Chen to issue a public apology and to incur some of the financial costs involved in establishing anti-sexual harassment policies.

“We are trying to seek justice outside of the judicial system,” Yung said. “It’s tragic because, if the burden is solely on one or two individuals to solve the problem, then it reflects a complete absence of a system.”

Li and Yung can no longer file sexual harassment complaints to the EOC for conciliation, owing to a 12-month time limit from the moment of assault that has already passed. This was the time period in which Breakthrough completed its own 11-month internal investigation in Yung’s allegations. Both women said going through legal proceedings would only add pressure to a process that was already emotionally draining.

But the implications of their campaign are far-reaching. Breakthrough is one of the largest church organisations in Hong Kong and caters to a young demographic. “The organisation needs to realise that this is a huge loophole to have, being a youth organisation. Their service recipients are not protected.” Yung said.

“Also the whole procedure – we’re talking about Minnie and me – we’re both PhD holders and we find it very exhausting to navigate through the whole process,” she added. “We are already quite articulate about our experience, and still, Minnie’s testimony was questioned, my testimony was questioned. It took a lot for us to defend our story as credible.”

Faye Yung Minnie Li Breakthrough

Faye Yung and Minnie Li at a protest outside Breakthrough’s Youth Village in Sha Tin. Photo: inmediahk.net.

YGN told HKFP in a written response that the organisation does not condone Chen’s actions: “We adamantly condemned this former employee for his behaviour, and we urged him to reflect and repent,” a spokesperson said.

They said although their internal investigations were conducted in an impartial manner, there were inadequate mechanisms in place to deal with the complaints: “[I]t must be acknowledged that YGN had insufficient experience in handling relevant complaints and there was room for improvement in the communication with the complainant, which may lead to the complainant’s negative impression and misunderstanding of YGN and its handling of the case,” they added.

In response to the allegationsHKFP reached out to Chen on multiple occasions. In a brief phone call, he told HKFP that he had no comment. It remains unclear whether he has been employed elsewhere since the allegations.

An online petition urging the church organisation to establish proper sexual harassment reporting procedures has garnered 1,128 signatures – a fact that the women say is indicative of wider support for the movement.

Breakthrough announced on Thursday that it would introduce sexual harassment training for its employees and said it is consulting the EOC on guidelines to implement proper anti-sexual harassment policies.

But for the time being, Li and Yung vow to remain resilient in the hopes that their actions will reverberate through society.

Additional reporting: Kris Cheng.

‘A breach of boundaries’: the fight against sexual harassment at a Hong Kong church group