In China, #MeToo hits universities the hardest

Professors and deans at Chinese universities have been sacked over sexual assault allegations. Source: Shutterstock

By Study International Staff

While the global #MeToo movement has mostly hit countries’ film, media and political circles, in China, it is in universities where it is being felt most.

Professors have been suspended and sacked, while the public presses universities to investigate into allegations of sexual misconduct on campus, according to The New York Times.

Amidst public uproar, the Education Ministry said it had a “zero tolerance” policy and will establish a new mechanism to prevent sexual harassment.

This move surprised former doctoral student at Beihang University, Luo Xixi.

“The ministry’s response was really a surprise, because it’s a commitment from our country. I’m very glad my country is finally making this move,” Luo told AFP.

On New Year’s Day, Luo had accused Chen Xiaowu, a professor of the Changjiang Scholars Program at Beihang University, of sexually assaulting her in 2004. According to SupChina, Luo claimed in a post on China’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo, that Chen had pressured her to go to his sister’s vacant apartment.

He tried to force her to have sex with him, but Luo cried for him to stop.

Later, he told her not to speak of what happened and that he was merely “testing” her moral standards.

Chen said he didn’t violate any laws or break any rules, according to Beijing Youth Daily. He said people should wait for results of the school’s investigation, and that because this matter touches upon his reputation, he “reserves his legal rights (to sue)”.

Nearly two weeks later, Beihang University sacked Chen from his position as vice-director of the graduate school after an investigation revealed that multiple students have been sexually harassed by the computer scientist as well.

Chen’s firing comes in the wake of another major sexual harassment scandal on a Chinese campus. A dean was fired over accusations of sexual assault by multiple female students, while another was dismissed for helping to cover up the incidents.

While the #MeToo movement in China has been slow to catch on, the government had nevertheless allowed it to emerge. Many spoke of their own experiences, and the hashtags “Me Too” and “Me Too in China” were trending on Weibo.

However, government censors are in place limiting the topic’s discussion on social media. Phrases such as “anti-sexual harassment” are blocked on social media while online petitions calling for greater protection of women have been deleted.

Activists have been warned against speaking out by officials, failing which they may be seen as traitors colluding with foreigners.

“So many sincere and eager voices are being muted,” 24-year-old Zhang Leilei said. Zhang is an activist in the southern city of Guangzhou who has helped circulate dozens of petitions among college students.

“We are angry and shocked.”

A male-dominated country

China’s political and business worlds are still male-dominated. Sexism and workplace discrimination happen in the workplace, with little done by the government to curb it. Gender parity has yet to reach business offices too.

Government officials and powerful business executives are often shielded from allegations of wrongdoing.

Aggrieved women usually find their complaints left uninvestigated by employers, and meaningful punishments are far and few between.

As for laws on rape and harassment, legal experts describe them as vague, with the court tending to rule in favour of employers, instead of the women who pursue complaints against them.

Against this backdrop, Luo, who now lives in the US, said Chinese women’s response needs to be “mild and gentle” to avoid pushback from Beijing.

In an email to NY Times, Luo wrote: “Only in this way can the Chinese campaign against sexual harassment live on and develop.”

This article was first published over at Study International on 26 January 2018. It is reproduced with permission.


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