A poster against sexual harassment shows up in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province on August 9 (VCG)
Rising awareness helps break code of silence
Online discussions about sexual misconduct have increased in China, with allegations surfacing against some prominent men from media, academic, charity, religious and corporate circles during the past few weeks.
At least one case is now part of a broader Chinese police investigation.
The government has included a provision on sexual harassment in the workplace in a civil code draft that was presented to the National People's Congress Standing Committee last week, according to Xinhua News Agency. The draft guideline asks employers to take steps to prevent harassment and heed complaints.
China Daily's recent interviews with 12 people－university students, a teacher, a social worker and a lawyer, who live in Beijing, elsewhere on the Chinese mainland, and the United States－indicate a rising awareness in China of sexual harassment, abuse and assault, aided by an engaged social media.
All six female students interviewed said they had faced some form of sexual harassment. One alleged she had been assaulted by an older male relative.
The social worker and lawyer called for stronger legal measures to combat sexual harassment.
While rape cases are prosecuted under the Criminal Law, harassment is often viewed through the prism of administrative regulations, mainly related to labor disputes.
The three male students interviewed said young men in China seem to have a better grasp of gender equality than men from earlier generations.
All interviewees were unanimous that sexual misconduct is ultimately about power structures－whether on university campuses or in the workplace.
In July, the Beijing Qianqian Law Firm witnessed a rise in the number of women seeking advice on sexual harassment. Set up in 1995, it has handled an average of 10 sexual assault and harassment cases a year, with most related to rape.
Lyu Xiaoquan, its executive director, said female university students and women from research institutions have visited the firm recently, saying they have faced harassment.
He said the firm, which also provides a pro bono service, counsels victims on how to proceed with harassment cases step-by-step.
But the task has not been easy, because unlike rape, which falls under the Criminal Law, and has prison sentences ranging from three to 10 years and sometimes beyond, depending on the severity of the crime, sexual harassment is not governed by a stand-alone law.
Lyu pointed to the special administrative regulations for the protection of female workers and the Women's Rights Protection Act as two documents that refer to harassment.
The special regulations, which took effect in 2012 and were formulated by the State Council, China's Cabinet, stipulate that organizations "shall prevent sexual harassment of female workers", and the women's act of 2005 states that women can report harassment to "relevant institutions".
"Apart from labor arbitration, 'loss of dignity' is the other ground for filing cases related to sexual harassment," Lyu said.
"We want a separate law for sexual harassment, but before that, we need to settle questions such as 'What is the definition of sexual harassment?' and 'What purpose would such a law serve?'" he added.
Li Dan, a women's rights campaigner and director of a nongovernmental organization in Beijing, favors more legal clarity on the subject of sexual harassment and publicity surrounding it.
Citing the example of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law, which took effect in 2015, he said many survivors and some police stations still do not know about it.
"Even if the victims want help, few know what to do," Li said.
Apart from students, female factory workers are very vulnerable to sexual harassment, according to earlier surveys by labor organizations in Guangdong province.
After allegations of sexual misconduct were made in the past three months or so against relatively high-profile individuals－who have denied any wrongdoing－online discussions on the topic have escalated. Even so, such discussions are largely confined to the media, students and activists, Li said.
According to Sina Weibo user "Bu Lang Fen Zi", sexual harassment ought to be included in a legal framework, and the opportunity provided by the discussions should be used to promote legislative enforcement, otherwise, the bravery of those who experience it will not bear fruit.
Chang Jiang, an associate professor at Tsinghua University, created the #I'llBeYourVoice hashtag on Sina Weibo in late July, and was soon flooded by responses.
Chang said more than 600 people, the vast majority of them women, had shared stories of sexual misconduct through private messages to him that week.
He redacted the Sina Weibo "handles" of those whose messages he reposted on his public page. All such posts were either from victims or those who knew victims. His page was viewed some 1 million times alone on August 1.
Sexual misconduct is a universal problem and no country can claim to be free of it, with variations only in degree.
In the Chinese context, social media have been at the forefront of the battle.
Chang said that among the messages he received on Sina Weibo in late July, the main groups were female college students or young graduates who had experienced sexual harassment, women who were born or grew up in rural areas and alleged that they had suffered sexual abuse or assault, and "real-name whistleblowers" who accused specific people of misconduct.
"It was heartbreaking, especially when I read the stories from the girls in the countryside," said Chang, 36, who teaches journalism and communication at the university in Beijing. "This is something so dark that I never imagined (existed) before."
In a culturally conservative society such as China's, such campaigns can help eliminate "a sense of shame" that victims of assault, abuse and harassment might feel, he added.
'Shadow in our hearts'
The six female university students interviewed said the online discussions empower women as well as men to break the invisible code of silence.
The majority wanted to remain anonymous when talking to China Daily about their ordeals, but most described the women who identified themselves on social media while sharing similar stories as "brave". One interviewee said it is easier for influential women to come forward than for other women.
It took years for some Hollywood actresses to go public with accusations against film producer Harvey Weinstein.
"It is a kind of reform to promote gender equality and awareness," said a 22-year-old female student from Beijing Foreign Studies University, of the wider online engagement over the subject in China.
"My friends and I have experienced different kinds of sexual harassment in public. And, such things have cast a shadow in our hearts," said the student of Chinese, adding that gender discrimination is a root cause.
Shi Hanjin, a Chinese student who attends college in Los Angeles, said she had yet to encounter any woman who had not felt sexually harassed, but that through sharing stories women find out that they are not alone.
"I have met male strangers who have stared at me or tried to grope me in public both in Guangzhou (the capital of Guangdong province) and here in LA," Shi said.
Three other female students in China emphasized the need to enhance gender education from childhood.
"The government should help higher education institutions establish related organizations to receive and deal with reports of sexual harassment," said a 23-year-old female student of public finance at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province.
"The government should emphasize education in this field from childhood."
A 24-year-old female student of English literature from Xiamen University in Fujian province urged the government to open channels where harassment complaints can be made, and said awareness should be improved among men and boys in the country. Her university has been offering some safety lessons, "warning girls of the dangers they may meet in this regard", she added.
In essence, these students want anti-harassment offices to be set up on university campuses.
A law student, 25, from China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said she was harassed by a man in his 50s during her internship at a company where he worked.
She said she saw no reason why universities should not have "zero tolerance" for sexual misconduct by faculty members, adding that many students keep quiet, fearing the fallout on their academic careers from trying to expose the transgressions of their teachers.
Liang Tao, 23, who is studying biomedical engineering at Zhejiang University, said he will pay closer attention to women's rights now that he knows more about them from the online discussions. One of his female classmates was harassed on a bus, he added.
Empathy for survivors and anger toward perpetrators has always existed in society, he said. "But in the past, there was no social media and people's awareness was low."
Another male interviewee, Lian Dashuai, 25, from Southeast University in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, said women who speak out against their harassers usually do so once they are well away from them. Lian, who is studying preventive medicine, sees the related discussions, especially in Chinese universities, as a positive development.
Both the male students and also Zhang Zepeng, who is studying at Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, feel that younger Chinese men have a better understanding of gender equality－they do not view women as "inferior". The male interviewees also said they support the online conversations.
Drawing a slightly different picture of the modern Chinese man, two female students said during the interviews that their partners appeared indifferent to their plight when they told them about incidents of sexual misconduct they had experienced in the past.
For one female university student from Jiangsu, the importance of awareness can never be overstated.
"My family told me not to live with my boyfriend," she said of the conservative approach some parents have toward live-in relationships in China.
"But they failed to tell me how to respond to sexual assault," she said, alleging that an older male relative had assaulted her in a different area of China years ago.
(Chinadaily.com.cn September 7, 2018)