KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Battling censorship and stereotypes, Chinese women are organizing online to harness the momentum of the country’s nascent #MeToo movement in a push for authorities and businesses to end sexual misconduct.
The latest wave of sexual misconduct claims in China emerged last month after Lei Chuang, the founder of Yi You - a charity that fights discrimination against people with hepatitis B - confessed to a sexual assault case and quit his position.
It has snowballed since then and at least 20 women have come forward to share allegations of sexual misconduct against other prominent individuals, from the charity sector to media and academia.
Elaine Chen, a brand manager for a beauty product, said she was astonished and angered by the latest case, involving Yi You. She took to online chat groups to discuss the issue with other women to decide what to do.
“Our purpose is very simple - that every woman who comes forward and shares their story can find some sort of support,” Chen said, as she took a break from interviewing candidates for a job opening at her company.
“We want to create a safe space for women to speak up. And if they want to reach out for help, for legal advice or counseling, they know help is here,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from China.
Chen is part of a group on WeChat, China’s most popular messenger app, that has grown to over 200 people within a few weeks, with volunteers taking up tasks such as recording new cases, offering legal advice and organizing media campaigns.
Some of the sexual misconduct cases that have been reported in the media were first discussed in the group.
“This will be a long-term campaign. We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” said the 28-year-old, who like other women in the group, juggles her day job and activism.
Official data on sexual harassment cases in China are hard to come by, but a third of Chinese college students said they have suffered sexual violence or sexual assault, the non-profit China Family Planning Association said in 2016.
But even though accusations of sexual misconduct by dozens of women against U.S. film producer Harvey Weinstein triggered a #MeToo movement across the globe last year, it was conspicuously quiet in China in the beginning.
Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.
China’s #MeToo-style moment only came in December, after a university professor was accused of sexual misconduct, but the movement fizzled out quickly.
Chinese authorities have tried to contain the issue, censoring some of the social media posts on Weibo, the country’s equivalent of Twitter.
Millions of social media users in the country, however, have found ways to circumvent censorship, such as using the phrase “rice bunny”, which is pronounced “mi tu” in Mandarin.
Bai Fei, one of the women who set up the WeChat group, said a team of volunteers is tasked with compiling the cases before making them public. Often these budding campaigners do not know each other in real life, she added.
“We do not necessarily meet with the victims too, as sometimes they want to protect their privacy,” said Bai, a women’s rights campaigner.
The women are now pushing for a code of conduct in the workplace, and asking businesses and charities to set up a mechanism such as a hotline or website to allow victims to report sexual harassment anonymously.
The non-profit Inno Community Development Organisation, which is spearheading the initiative, said the code of conduct is still being drafted, but 400 individuals and charities have pledged to support it.
“We hope that all the industries will have such mechanisms to deter future cases,” said Wang Ying, the deputy director of the group based in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.
“Our strategy now is to target businesses and the different industries, but at the end of the day, we hope there will be legal reforms at the national level,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Lv Xiaoquan from the Beijing-based Qianqian law firm, which provides legal aid on women’s rights cases, said that a main challenge is the lack of a specific anti-harassment law in China.
As a result, women must use other legal provisions, such as those governing labor disputes, he said.
“This dilutes the significance of the whole case, because you can’t use sexual misconduct as the main premise - it is just supporting evidence,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Lv cautioned that true reform cannot be achieved solely through changes to laws, as women are still subject to widespread discrimination, as well as deeply-entrenched traditional values that put pressure on them to be submissive.
But the latest #MeToo-style campaign in China signals that “it is becoming more and more common that sexual violence survivors are ready to speak up and fight for their rights.”
“This is a good start,” said Lv. “As the Chinese saying goes - a single spark can set the whole field alight.”
Writing by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org