The influence of the #MeToo movement has slowly but surely spread internationally, with women from countries such as Italy and Japan speaking out, despite their countries’ reputations for overarching currents of patriarchy. Most recently, it has spread to China, where the movement is about to take on a completely different face.
12 years ago, when Luo Xixi was studying at Beihang University in Beijing, she was sexually harassed by one of her professors. Instead of immediately recounting her ordeal, she reached out to other students to compile their accounts, complete with recordings, before taking the case to the university. It was only after the university suspended the professor that Xixi went public with her account on Weibo, attributing her bravery to the #MeToo movement occurring in America.
While this may look like the start of an uproarious movement in one of the world’s most patriarchal countries, there are still many pitfalls it has to face. For one, China’s government and education system are severely undereducated in the realms of sexual harassment and assault.
“China does not have national laws on sexual harassment. Schools and offices also lack proper mechanisms to deal with it,” says Feng Yuan, the co-founder of non-governmental organization (NGO) Equality, which combats gender violence in Beijing. “Others’ revelations, not as well-planned as Luo’s, may just go unnoticed and ignored. That is why those who voice out are truly exceptional.”
Even so, those who voice out face countless consequences from the government. In its attempts to have complete control over its population, China’s government has cracked down on internet communications, going so far as to even earn the spot of “worst abuser of internet freedom” for three years running by Freedom House, a US human rights organization.
“If the outrage reaches a certain point where it’s seen as somewhat destabilising, the government would not hesitate to shut it down completely,” says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. “Look at what’s been happening in America. With the #MeToo campaign, it’s bringing down powerful men virtually every day of the last few months… you can only imagine it’s absolutely terrifying for Chinese Communist Party leaders.”
Her remark is exemplified by the government’s detaining of the “feminist five” in 2015, when five politically prominent women who were passionately outspoken against sexual harassment were detained by the Chinese authorities, an act that outraged the international community.
The final obstacle isn’t the government, nor is it the astounding lack of legislation against such powerful issues. It is tradition itself. Sexual harassment in China is most often referred to as the “hidden rule,” where it’s implied that women aren’t being sexually harassed – they’re simply complying to the men committing the acts in order to gain future favor with them. According to feminist Li Sipan, it favors victim blaming instead of shining light on the figures in power.
The “hidden rule” isn’t unique to Chinese society. It’s quite common in Italy as well; sexual harassment is not spoken of because of the country’s strong patriarchal roots, making any claims look like nothing more than women being over dramatic about a man making an innocent remark. Italy also only recently introduced legislation to fight back against sexual harassment in the workplace after its own series of scandals, including that of two famous filmmakers.
Still, there is no guarantee that China will even be able to reach the same level as Italy’s, and because of the government’s strong hold on the internet and its dislike of radical change, it doesn’t seem very likely it ever will.
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