The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s #MeToo was struggling, then they removed a professor for sexual assault  

Zhu Xixi, a feminist activist, protests in 2014 against sexual harassment by dressing as Little Riding Hood at Zhejiang University. (Photo courtesy Zhu Xixi)
Zhu Xixi, a feminist activist, protests in 2014 against sexual harassment by dressing as Little Riding Hood at Zhejiang University. (Photo courtesy Zhu Xixi)
Placeholder while article actions load

BEIJING — A Chinese university has fired a well-known professor over multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, a significant step for China's fledgling #MeToo movement.

Beihang University announced late Thursday that an investigation found Professor Chen Xiaowu "did sexually harass female students" and would lose his post as vice president of the university's graduate school. His teaching certificate has also been canceled.  

Early this month, an academic living in the U.S., Luo Xixi, wrote online that, as a student many years ago, Chen lured her to his sister's home and forced himself on her. She escaped in tears. After going public, five other former students came forward with allegations of their own.

The fact that Chen was stripped of his post — and that the news was covered by the Communist Party-controlled press — is a small win for the Chinese women who have spoken out in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

In a statement, Luo called the news an "initial victory."

"For the past three months we have been waiting anxiously all the time," she wrote. "Luckily, this waiting and expectation have not been a letdown."

In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, several Chinese women have made news by publishing allegations of sexual assault or harassment online. Their stories have been met with a mix of incredulity and anger.

China’s women reveal harassment but #MeToo movement struggles for air

The ruling Communist Party appears unsure about what to make of the movement. 

In the aftermath of the Weinstein news, state media first seized on the chance to criticize U.S. culture, arguing — contrary to evidence and common sense — that harassment doesn't happen in China. 

When cases started to emerge, authorities tried to censor some discussions, worried, perhaps that public sentiment could turn on other authority figures or officials. 

But Luo's case proved difficult to suppress. She was based overseas and quickly found other survivors. Together, they took their story to the university. 

Chinese feminists are glad to see the university take decisive action, but wonder why the university has just removed Chen from his post rather than fired him. 

Xiao Meili, a feminist based in Guangzhou, who has penned an open letter asking her alma mater, the Communication University of China, to come up with a plan to combat campus sexual harassment, said she was unimpressed by the result.

"They've stripped him of many of his [job] titles, but he didn't lose his job and can continue working at this university," she said.

"I don't think it's a milestone. I think it would be progress if they fired the professor."

The long-term goal of China's MeToo movement, according to Xiao, should be to encourage more women to come forward. "I really hope we can continue doing this, so then all those sexual harassment perpetrators will get a real punishment."

Sophia Huang, a woman who galvanized the movement by going public with an account of an alleged sexual assault by a former supervisor, agreed that the movement has a long way to go. 

She is calling on Chinese universities to do more to prevent sexual misconduct and create the channels for victims to seek redress. 

Luna Lin in Beijing contributed. 

China state media says women aren’t harassed. Women beg to differ.

Xi Jinping and six other men will rule China, but women are left behind

Battered women in China could finally get some legal protection

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news