Coming forward with an accusation of sexual harassment or assault is never easy. Victims are often ignored, accused of lying, or have their own reputations maligned.
For women in China’s already under-pressure civil society groups, it can be even more difficult, as they are urged to keep silent for fear of helping the government crack down on activists and dissidents.
“Women working in human rights (or) civil society in China are often pressured not to expose sexual abuses by male leaders so as not to jeopardize ‘the cause’,” journalist Yaqiu Wang wrote on Twitter. “Women’s rights are constantly undermined, even belittled, in the presence of the ‘higher cause’ of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom.’”
Xiong Jing, director of the Beijing-based Women’s Media Monitor Network, told CNN that many men in the activist sphere have been able to take advantage of their reputation as do-gooders.
“They’re famous, they’re powerful, and they make great contributions (to society), that’s exactly what makes them think they have the power to sexually harass women,” she said.
However, there are signs of a shift underway, and a new wave of #MeToo reckoning in China.
This is combined with a new freedom to discuss the matter online, as the previously pervasive censorship of the issue has given way somewhat, leading the conversation around sexual harassment and assault to explode.
Wave of accusations
This month, a spreadsheet of accusations against prominent men within NGO, activist and media circles was shared widely by Chinese women online in a manner similar to the US “media men” list. CNN has reviewed a copy of the list and is examining the unverified claims within.
Far from being wary of calling out men whose work is important, many women airing their accusations have highlighted the hypocrisy of their abusers, and the disparity between their public and private faces.
“All you talk about is justice and morality, but behind our backs you are full of greed and lust,” wrote one woman who works in the environmental sphere on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
“It’s too bad that I’m not afraid, as no matter what words you arrange to embarrass me, I will, as always, expose you. Because, I know you are a criminal! Because, I am someone who serves the public.”
Wang, the journalist, said she was inspired that “Chinese women are speaking out loudly and firmly, and more people are calling them ‘courageous,’ rather than: ‘she brought it (on) herself.’
“Feminist ideas are gaining traction, despite state repression on women’s rights activism,” she added.
#MeToo activism first took hold on university campuses, according to Xiong, where women spoke out against predatory professors and students.
Peking University student Yue Xin received widespread attention after administrators attempted to shut down a petition by her and other students over an alleged rape case, sparking significant outrage.
From students, awareness and activism over the issue has spread out to professional circles, Xiong said, and a new wave is cresting as women feel emboldened seeing others speaking out.
“You could say it’s a shift – or that it’s erupting like a volcano,” she said.
There is still considerable resistance. A large number of posts discussing sexual misconduct and #MeToo are censored online, and women who do come forward still face push back online and resistance at the official level.
Xiong said she had seen some men accuse women, taking part in the most recent wave of accusations this month, of attempting to distract from an ongoing scandal over fake vaccines.
“This just shows that they don’t really see women as human, they don’t think that sexual harassment is a big deal,” she said.
Amid the accusations and support for women making them this week were also stories of frustration and pressure to be silent.
A woman who made accusations against a prominent state television anchor said online that she was urged by police to withdraw her complaint because the man in question had an “enormous ‘positive influence’ on society.”
In another incident, Hong Kong director Sharon Lam said this week she had been assaulted by a trainee pilot for Hainan Airlines who broke into her hotel room and climbed on top of her.
When she attempted to report the case, police urged her to drop it, with one even threatening to charge her with assault. She also said a manager at the airline tried to pressure her, saying it was very expensive to train a pilot.
In a statement Wednesday, Haikou police said they had arrested a 27-year-old employee of Hainan Airlines surnamed Bai on suspicion of attempted rape, and suspended the officers who originally handled the case.
Hainan Airlines did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘Just the start’
Many, including Lam, were encouraged by Bai’s arrest and the apparent reversal by police in how they handled the case. There also seem to be indications that the widespread censorship that has characterized discussions over #MeToo in China was beginning to falter.
On Friday, the hashtags “in the face of sexual assault, you should not be silent” and “no consent equals sexual harassment” were trending on Weibo, with around 100,000 posts between them.
Other #MeToo-related hashtags have attracted millions of posts in the past, but also been subject to widespread censorship, with users even having to adopt the homophonic characters “rice bunny” – “mi tu” in Mandarin – to get around the blocks.
While the rules governing censorship on the Chinese internet are opaque at the best of times, the sheer weight of posts and growing awareness at all levels of society of the issue of sexual harassment may be leading to more official tolerance. The censors are also always more tolerant of criticism when it’s not aimed at officials themselves.
A post from a central government account Thursday encouraged people to educate themselves about the issue and speak out, listing a number of guidelines published by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, and the slogan “Say no to sexual harassment!”
With several #MeToo exposés going viral this week, Chinese social media consultancy GS Data said there was a spike in discussion of sexual harassment this week on WeChat, a messaging platform, with more than 40 million related searches and impressions. An online call by Chinese magazine People for women to send in stories of sexual harassment received more than 1,700 submissions in 24 hours.
“I think this is just the start,” Xiong said. “A lot of emotions and hurt have been buried, but they have not disappeared.”
She was encouraged that a shift appeared to be taking place and a new wave of #MeToo accusations was cresting, but warned against being complacent and assuming progress was inevitable, especially in a country where the reins of power are as male dominated as in China.
“On the one hand, the overall environment is getting better because a lot of people are criticizing the sexual harassment,” Xiong said.
“On the other, those who are still powerful, especially older men in powerful positions, they are protecting each other, they have a brotherhood which protects each other.”
CNN’s Cat Wang and Serenitie Wang contributed reporting.