The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese women reveal sexual harassment, but #MeToo movement struggles for air

Sophia Huang Xueqin holds up a sign saying #MeToo in the city of Guangzhou, an image she shared on social media in November. (Sophia Huang Xueqin)

BEIJING — When Sophia Huang Xueqin was a young intern working for a national news agency in China, a senior male reporter and mentor tried to grope and kiss her in a hotel room where they were working together.

"My mind went blank, my heart was beating really fast and my body went stiff," she said. "I didn't want to believe it had happened to me. I wondered if I had done anything wrong, to be misunderstood. I asked myself how someone I respected could suddenly put on such a different face."

When her colleague refused to take no for an answer, Huang escaped only by kicking him and kneeing him in the groin, and running off to a friend's room. But she never reported the incident.

Instead, she quit her job, telling people that she wanted to try something new. More than six years later, she is finally going public, inspired by the #MeToo movement spreading around the world, but dismayed that it has so far failed to take root in China.

"Finally there were people brave enough to make it public and start the conversation," she said in an interview. "Unfortunately, China reacted toward #MeToo with a lot of silence. Although I could understand why that was, I really felt defeated."

Huang wrote about her experience on social media, helping to fuel a conversation about widespread harassment in China — but one that is happening on the fringes of society and social media rather than in state-run media or the corridors of power.

Huang has invited others to come forward. She also started a poll on WeChat, a popular messaging app in China, in which 255 female journalists shared their experiences: More than 80 percent reported they had been sexually harassed, most on multiple occasions.

Yet very few women have joined her in going public.

China's #MeToo moment still hasn't arrived, suppressed by a patriarchal culture and a male-dominated one-party state that obsessively protects those in power.

"There is still a belief in China, deeply ingrained in traditional culture, that it is a virtue of women to be submissive to the wishes of others," said women's rights activist Ye Haiyan, whose own struggle to bring to justice a school principal for molesting six schoolgirls in 2013 — and the persecution she faced from the government and police for doing so — was recorded in the documentary "Hooligan Sparrow."

"Women being resistant or vocal about their experiences are still stigmatized by people who say they simply don't have self-respect," she said. "There is also a victim-blaming culture in which women are often shamed for having been 'careless' to fall victim to harassment."

In October, Chinese state media crowed over the Harvey Weinstein case, arguing that Chinese culture is superior to Western culture, that harassment doesn't happen here because men are taught to "protect" women, and that the authorities deal harshly with those who misbehave.

The reality is quite different.

Powerful perpetrators are habitually protected by the Chinese state, Ye said, while women's rights groups are treated with suspicion by the Communist Party, branded as agents of foreign interference.

"As long as the Communist Party remains in power, it's arguable China will never be ready for a #MeToo movement," said Leta Hong Fincher, author of the forthcoming book "Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China."

Abroad, the #MeToo movement has led to the downfall of many prominent men, including politicians. That's bound to make Chinese leaders nervous, said Fincher. Not only have some women's posts been censored on social media, but there has been none of the in-depth, investigative reporting by news media of the kind that brought down Weinstein in the United States.

"There's no press freedom in China, and there's no rule of law, so it's extremely difficult for victims of sexual harassment to find justice of any kind," Fincher said. "What incentive would they have to come out?"

But some still have.

In Silicon Valley, in October, Luo Xixi's husband casually asked her if she had seen the news about Weinstein. She turned to her phone, silently saying to herself, "Me too."

Born and brought up in China, Luo had studied at Beihang University in Beijing, and still remembers vividly the time when a leading computer scientist, Chen Xiaowu, lured her to his sister's house on a pretext, locked the door and made his advance.

Only her tears and pleading that she was still a virgin persuaded him to relent, she said.

But in the days that followed the Weinstein revelations, some of Chen's former students started to share their experiences of harassment at his hands, in a private chat room for graduates. Luo had seen action taken against predatory men on U.S. campuses, and when she saw Huang's account, she decided it was time to speak out. 

That she now has U.S. residency affords her some protection, Luo says, but it is also a "double-edged sword." Chen, she said, had once mobilized fellow lecturers to warn female students against reporting him, telling them not to become "agents of evil foreign forces."

Luo's family back in China was initially very worried about the risk of a backlash if she spoke out, she said. "But they later became supportive, knowing I did the right thing. A lot of friends who I had not talked to for ages also reached out to me, and encouraged me to carry on."

Sophia Huang has still not named her attacker, but Luo figured that only by naming Chen would a precedent be set. She also collected the testimony of four other women, one of whom said Chen made her pregnant and tried to bribe her to remain silent.

Luo's post garnered more than 4 million views and 17,000 likes. When the accusations were reported in Chinese media, the university suspended Chen from teaching and launched an investigation.

In comments to the Beijing Youth Daily, Chen denied he had done anything illegal or in breach of party discipline. He did not answer his telephone this week, and The Washington Post could not reach him for comment.

There have been other victories. In November, an associate professor at Chengdu University of Technology was suspended from teaching after a student accused him of repeatedly sending female students suggestive messages. The university had ignored a direct complaint, but was forced to act after a Weibo blogsite post went viral, a Chinese media outlet called Sixth Tone reported.

In December, Nanchang University promised an investigation after a former student publicly accused a professor of assaulting her over a seven-month period in 2016, until she suffered "trauma-related disorders," Caixin reported.

Luo said students from 23 universities across China have publicly called for their institutions to set up mechanisms to address sexual harassment — but her "WoYeShi" hashtag (#MeToo in Chinese) has not taken off.

Indeed, a 2016 survey of nearly 6,600 students and recent graduates found that nearly 70 percent had experienced sexual harassment but less than 4 percent of victims had reported the incidents.

"Two recent cases I worked on both showed victims are often subject to insults and abuse from perpetrators when they try to speak about it," said Wei Tingting, the report's main author, who was one of five activists, dubbed the "Feminist Five," who were detained for five weeks in 2015 because of plans to distribute leaflets about sexual harassment on public transportation. "Many victims said it caused them ­additional pain communicating with the police, who sometimes wouldn't take their cases seriously."

Two former students from different universities said they had been attacked on their campuses, which have particular areas well known as trouble spots where security and lighting is poor. Authorities showed no interest in addressing the issue, they said in interviews.

One, who agreed to be identified only by her given name, Fangzhou, said she had been groped or stalked on the campus of East China Normal University in Shanghai many times. A lecturer would send unwanted texts to female students in the middle of the night, she said, and tell them in public to "smile" or he'd "punish" them.

"Friends and family were sympathetic, but no one suggested I call the police or talk to lecturers, because they knew not much good would come out of that," she said. "They advised me to put on a tougher face and retaliate verbally if it happened again — with the exception of one housemate who said I was just 'attractive to perverts.' "

Amber Ziye Wang reported from Beijing.

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