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Overseas Chinese reflect on China’s #MeToo Movement from the United States

BY GLORIS LIU

An original version of this piece was published in 2018 under the title “Sexual Harassment & Sexual Assault in the U.S. and China” in Gloris Liu’s blog.

China’s #MeToo movement began when Xixi Luo, a former Ph.D. student at Beijing’s Beihang University now based in the United States, posted a letter on the Chinese social media platform Weibo describing how her advisor Xiaowu Chen sexually harassed her in 2004. Within a day, the post received three million hits. While Chen denied the allegations, he was later dismissed by the university.

The international #MeToo movement sent shockwaves across the world in 2017. Last year, many in China – like Luo – were motivated and empowered by the movement, and published their personal stories related to sexual harassment and assault online through Chinese social media.

While awareness of sexual harassment is growing internationally, the pace of the movement in China is slow. The Chinese Communist Party has censored terms related to the movement, imprisoned feminist activists and taken petitions offline. Reflecting on China’s #MeToo movement more than a year on, Chinese students and professionals living in the U.S. share their views on sexual harassment and violence in China today, as well as gender issues in contemporary society.

Yuki Bian, a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley majoring in cognitive science

Bian first became exposed to feminism when she read Fang Si-Qi’s “First Love Paradise” after the #MeToo movement kicked off in China. It is a novel written by Yihan Lin, who eventually committed suicide after being sexually assaulted. The novel caused Bian to reflect on the difficulties victims face when they attempt to speak out about their traumatic experiences, she said.

“When I read articles that went viral on WeChat and Weibo, I believed and trusted the survivors,” Bian said. “I felt that finally, Chinese people cared a little bit about women’s rights…The #MeToo movement is an opportunity to let people know about the commonality and horror of sexual harassment.”

Bian also said she felt the #MeToo movement in China has so far encountered a stage of backlash in 2019.

“People (are) starting to doubt sexual harassment victims and deem feminists as irrational, sentimental, and radical,” she said. “I think the majority of Chinese people still lack consciousness regarding sexual harassment and gender equality.”

Anonymous, sexual assault survivor:

One student from China was sexually assaulted by a boy from her high school.

When she was a freshman in university, he came to visit her in Boston, and they had drinks in a hotel room. After she woke up the following day, he told her they had sex the night before. She did not remember anything. “I knew he liked me, but I never agreed to be with him,” she said.

Following the assault, she never spoke to the boy again, or told anyone about what had happened. She said she never thought he was the kind of person who would sexually assault someone. She said was not familiar with the #MeToo movement until recently, and never realized that what had happened to her constituted sexual harassment or assault.

Sophia Wang, a sophomore at New York University studying journalism and psychology:

“The #MeToo movement in China happened in a more scattered form. (Those who spoke out) took (the) great risk of getting sabotaged by the men in power, whereas in the U.S. women tend to act in teams and have easier access to help offered by social organizations,” she said.

In 2018, Wang’s female friend studying in Shanghai told her that students held a photo exhibition raising awareness on sexual harassment and abuse following reports of sexual assault allegations that allegedly remained un-investigated.

Wang said while she is optimistic about #MeToo in China, it will take time for society to embrace feminism and create a safer environment for victims. “Schools in China should have done more to educate students on how to act (when faced with) sexual harassment.”

Jasmine Xu, a sophomore at Barnard College studying economics:

Growing up, Xu’s parents told her she didn’t have to work so hard because marrying the right man was more important. Xu, however, did not agree. When she began studying at Boston University, she chose journalism as her major. Her parents were furious, for they believe journalism is a dangerous and exhausting career for women.

But Xu persisted in her pursuit of journalism, and felt encouraged by the movement. “It is very relatable to my own life,” she said. “My value has been changing by studying abroad and realizing my own value. I love to be (a) part of it.” 

Few people in China ever talk about sexual harassment and assault, and victims feel a sense of shame, according to Xu. “They would think it is a shame (on) them, and a shame (on) their families,” Xu said, adding that she thinks it will be difficult to maintain momentum for the movement going forward.

Portrait of Jasmine Xu, a sophomore at Barnard College studying economics. Photo Credit: Jasmine Xu.

Zilin Wang, a sophomore studying international relations:

Gender inequality is ingrained in Chinese society, Wang said.

“Those social norms are still prevailing in Chinese society now, so the only way to promote gender equality is to understand why and how those norms form,” he said.

Emma Chen-Banas, the first Committee Chairwomen for the MassMutual Women Leaders Network and Founder as well as Chairwomen of the Asian Employee Resource Group:

Gender issues are global issues, said Chen-Banas, who was born and raised in China but now lives in the United States.

Gender equality has improved in the past decade. Women in America were brought up in a freer environment that allows them to speak up in contrast to many women in China, she said. Yet Chinese women also have some advantages that women in America do not, she added.

“Many relatives will come to help you during and after you have babies, doing everything to take care of you. But in the U.S., women have to depend on themselves more. They have to cook, buy groceries, etc.,” she said. “Women have so much pressure, leading to depression physically and mentally.”

She also talked about the idea of gender equality varying in different settings. In the United States, society is more progressive on issues such as splitting the bill after a meal, whereas in China norms are still governed by more traditional and patriarchal mindsets, she explained.

A boy who grew up in rural areas would be very conservative, Chen-Banas said.  They would think that women are naturally responsible for having babies, doing laundry, and obeying to their husbands. For them, women from urban areas are seen as “too independent” and “looking down” on men, she said.

About the author

Portrait of the author. Photo Credit: Gloris Liu.

Born and raised in Beijing, Gloris Liu is an undergraduate scholar pursuing a dual degree in journalism and sociology at Boston University. Passionate about storytelling, she hopes to promote gender equality and healthier communication between China and the United States. When she is not reporting, you can find her alongside the Charles River or at hotpot restaurants in Boston. Visit her website: www.ziruiliu.com

About the editor

Jessie Lau is a writer from Hong Kong exploring identity, human rights and politics. Her work has been published by The Economist, The Diplomat Magazine and Quartz, among others. She serves as Board Member at NüVoices, a collective supporting women working on China subjects, and Editor-in-Chief of its digital magazine NüStories. Formerly a Hong Kong and China reporter with the South China Morning Post, she holds a MSc from the London School of Economics, an LLM from Peking University and a BA from the University of California, Berkeley. Twitter: @_laujessie Website: www.laujessie.com