In 2004 Luo Xixi was studying for her PhD at a prestigious aeronautics institute in Beijing. She was happy and excited by her academic pursuit.
She later alleged this happiness was destroyed when her supervisor Chen Xiaowu tried to rape her by luring her to his sister’s empty house on the pretext that the plants needed watering. She escaped by telling him she was a virgin. She says he told her not to tell anyone; instead he claimed that his actions had been designed to test her virtue. She became depressed and anxious, and vowed to leave China as soon as she graduated.
Today she lives and works in America, and as the #MeToo movement began growing in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Luo gathered the courage to publicly denounce Chen.
“After speaking these words I feel a heavy weight has been lifted from me. I should have done it sooner, but it is better late than never,” she said as she posted her account on Sina Weibo on January 1.
Yet Luo’s story shows just how hard it is to come forward with allegations of sexual assault or harassment in China.
She initially posted her accusations on Zhihu – a question and answer site similar to Quora – after seeing other women complain about Chen anonymously.
But Chen got wind of the discussion and warned his victims that they were being used by “evil foreign forces outside the country”.
Eventually Beihang University took action and investigated the claims of Luo and five others who have chosen to remain anonymous. In one case Chen is said to have made the girl pregnant. As well as sexual misconduct Luo also accused Chen of taking money from his students and plagiarising their work.
On January 11 Beihang University fired Chen.
“[His] actions seriously violated the professional ethics and conduct of a teacher, and created a bad influence on society,” it said on its official weibo account.
In December Nanchang University in the southeastern province of Jiangxi had earlier sacked two of its deans after one was found to have sexually assaulted a student, while the other assisted in a cover-up.
Meanwhile in January, allegations of sexual misconduct were levelled at a teacher from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. The teacher has now been recalled from an overseas programme to face investigation.
And in the field of entertainment, Hong Kong actor, producer and director Eric Tsang has been accused of sexual assault as well. He denies the allegations.
Yet the question is does this amount to a Chinese “#Metoo” movement?
It is hard to tell.
Certainly many people, especially young women, recognise that sexual assault and harassment is a huge problem in academia and in the workplace.
A joint survey by the Guangzhou Gender Education and Sexual Equality Centre and a Beijing law firm found that 75% of female college students experienced some type of harassment
That said the #MeToo topic page on Sina Weibo has only gathered 29 million views since October, and the Chinese equivalent hashtag “woyeshi” has only attracted 900,000.
On WeChat – a less public form of social media – searches for “woyeshi” and “metoo” peaked at about 3.8 million on November 16 and mostly remaining around the one-million-a-day mark from late October till now.
Yet unlike the #MeToo movement on Western forms of social media – such as Twitter – very few women are disclosing personal stories.
“China has a culture of shame and blames the victim,” wrote one feminist blog, explaining why the #Metoo movement wasn’t taking off. “It’s too damaging to come out as a victim,” said another women on weibo.
Part of the problem is with Chinese law. There is a law specifying rape but there’s no legal definition of sexual assault.
Furthermore students complain that colleges rarely do much to educate staff and students on acceptable codes of ‘interaction’.
In the weeks that have followed Luo’s revelations many current and former students have written to their universities to demand new policies in this area.
On Friday a group of teachers from 50 institutions wrote an open letter calling on the Minster of Education and the National People’s Congress to “to set detailed and strict laws against sexual harassment and severely punish sexual abusers”.
The signatories promised to hold a “ zero-tolerance attitude toward on-campus sexual assault” and pledged their “determination to be role models for students”.
“Teachers have too much power over their students in China, it’s similar to that of boss and his employees, this is wrong and we need to sort it out,” the Beijing Times quoted a professor at Wuhan University as saying.
Yet these calls and complaints – though, in themselves not a direct challenge – are being censored.
Messages are disappearing from weibo and whole topics such as the recent allegations against Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang return no results.
(Tsang has denied the allegations calling them “fabrications” and has threatened to sue.)
Leta Hong Fincher, a close watcher of women’s rights in China, says China’s all male-leadership is threatened by any mass movement, but especially those that tap into deep public anger.
“As long as the Communist Party remains in power, it’s arguable China will never be ready for a #MeToo movement,” the Washington Post quotes her as saying.
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