Students speak out on sexual harassment, despite censors

The rapid growth of a movement against sexual harassment on university campuses has left the Chinese authorities grappling with wanting to be seen to act decisively while trying to quell the rise in online letters and petitions, since they regard with suspicion feminist activists that attempt to challenge the state.

In a move that was unusually swift for a government department, China’s education ministry last week responded to sexual harassment allegations at Beihang University, Beijing. Ministry spokesperson Xu Mei said the ministry will continue its “zero-tolerance policy” towards sexual harassment on campuses and will deal with “any and all of sexual harassment cases reported in other universities and colleges”.

The ministry has said in statements in official media that it would “absolutely not tolerate” actions by instructors “that violate the bottom line of ethics and violate students”, and that the ministry “will study how to establish a protection mechanism with relevant campus departments”.

An investigation was launched at Beihang, a major public research university formerly known as the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, after a former student Luo Xixi publicly accused Chen Xiaowu, her former doctoral supervisor, of sexually harassing her 13 years ago.

“A few years studying under Chen was a nightmare because I was so bullied I had depression and hallucinations and was taking anti-depressants,” she wrote.

Luo’s online accusation posted on her Weibo social media account on 1 January went viral within China.

In the post she claimed that in 2004 Chen insisted on driving her to his sister’s apartment so that Luo could tend to the plants — a domestic task he said women are innately adept at. She alleged that Chen tried to seduce her, but she resisted, saying she was still a virgin. In the end, Chen let her go and told her not to tell anyone about what happened, Luo wrote.

Luo, who now lives in the United States, said she was inspired by the #MeToo social media movement that started in October in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations in the US entertainment industry.

She encouraged others to come forward and share their own experiences under the #woyeshi hashtag – wo ye shi is the Chinese translation of ‘me too’.

Chen removed

Five others then came forward with similar allegations against Chen. Luo contacted them and other alumni to provide evidence, including audio recording, to the university’s disciplinary body.

On 11 January the university announced on its Weibo account that Chen had been suspended from his post as executive vice-president of the university's Graduate School and his teaching certificate cancelled. The university said the education ministry had authorised them to relieve Chen of his post.

The ministry revoked Chen’s title and funding awarded under the Changjiang Scholars programme, also known as the Yangtze River programme – a prestigious academic award to individual professors, awarded since 1998.

Recipients are known as ‘Changjiang distinguished professor’ and are given additional financial resources to enhance their research and improve their international research visibility.

Before his teaching certificate was cancelled, Chen was quoted by the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper in its 1 January issue as saying: “I have never done anything in violation of laws and regulations,” and added: “The university has opened an investigation, and we should refer to the results.”

Tip of the iceberg

The Chen case is just the tip of the iceberg of sexual harassment on Chinese campuses, activists say.

In 2014 the All-China Women's Federation surveyed 1,200 female students at 15 universities. Some 50% of respondents said they had been subjected to sexual misconduct, either physical or verbal, while 23% described the situation as "severe".

In a 2016 survey of 6,592 students and recent graduates conducted by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre together with law firm Beijing Impact, which was published in an April 2017 report, 70% said they had been sexually harassed, but only 4% reported it to the university or to the police. Over 40% of them experienced sexual harassment in public areas on campus.

Already three more cases had been brought to public attention, all involving female college students who claimed to have been sexually assaulted or harassed by lecturers.

The most recent allegations were made anonymously by a graduate of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, who said the strength shown by Luo and the other women had inspired her to speak out.

She alleged a professor sexually assaulted her in his office and posted text messages exchanged between the two in the wake of the alleged assault to back up her claims.

Not being heard

But some women are not even being heard, even though China’s 2005 law on the protection of women’s rights and interests states that “sexual harassment against women is banned. The victims shall be entitled to complain to the entity or the relevant organs.”

Despite this, #woyeshi posts are being censored in China by a nervous regime which sees any kind of activism, including on women’s issues, as a threat to the authority of the state.

In 2015, the authorities detained the women’s rights activists in Guangzhou known as the Feminist Five for planning to demonstrate against sexual harassment on public transport. They were released a month later after an international outcry.

Many students will find they speak out in vain. Jin Zegang, professor of law at Tongji University, Shanghai, said the ministry of education had set a good example by stripping Chen of his academic honours. But in previous campus cases “although the teachers were suspended and probed, the action taken was not effective. Even though they were sacked after the harassment was proven, their academic titles and status were hardly affected,” Jin said.

In a case made public last week by the official China Daily newspaper, a former Xiamen University professor, Wu Chunming, dismissed in 2014 for sexually harassing students, was found to be still working at the university as a librarian at Xiamen’s South China Sea Institute despite being expelled from the Party and stripped of his teaching qualifications. The institute said it was not a contradiction of his punishment as he did not teach or supervise students.

NGOCN, an online information platform for Chinese non-governmental organisations, recently compiled a list of 13 known cases of sexual misconduct by professors at Chinese universities over the past four years. One third of the cases were unresolved, the Communication University of China open letter noted.

“Chinese universities will come in line with the #MeToo movement when they promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate sexual harassment allegations, when they appropriately define and hold people accountable for sexual harassment, and when students have confidence to report what happened to them,” said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch.

Open letters

Students have resorted not just to individual social media posts but multiple-signature open letters, in a bid to be heard.

The letters calling on their universities to respond to sexual harassment issues were signed by students at some 60 universities across the country after activists, including Zheng Churan of the Feminist Five and another well-known campaigner Xiao Meili, both based in the southern city of Guangzhou, wrote an open letter, according to Leta Hong Fincher, an American author of the book Leftover Women: The resurgence of gender inequality in China, who tweeted last week that she had attended a talk by the two on 12 January.

They told her some of the students who signed the open letters to their universities were summoned by campus Communist Party “advisors” who asked for the name of the “organiser” of the petition and warned the students not to let themselves be used by “foreign forces”.

However, the students “are impassioned” and want to sign their real names, despite the risks, Xiao said in a blogpost. “If their own social media account gets deleted [by censors] they borrow someone else’s account to post the letter.”

“It’s painful to hear that Luo and many other women were harassed, coerced and forced to stay silent about their experiences. Chen’s misconduct really is not an anomaly. Sexual harassment is in fact rampant on Chinese college campuses, and victims, under coercion from their instructors, usually have nowhere to file their allegations,” Xiao wrote in an open letter she signed together with other former students of their alma mater the Communication University of China, or CUC. “Even if they are brave enough to speak up, justice is not served in many cases,” Xiao said.

She says the letter has been deleted from social media several times by censors. But Zheng and Xiao say it will be hard for Chinese universities to completely silence all the women coming out.

The letter by former CUC students included recommendations to the university such as conducting regular online surveys on sexual harassment, allowing students to anonymously report cases of harassment, assigning a specific department and point person to handle such allegations, and establishing a proper channel where allegations can be reported.

This would still be far from eliminating on-campus sexual harassment, Xiao says, but it was important to start somewhere.