On the eighth floor of an apartment building in China’s Qingyang city, a young woman sits beside a window. It’s nearing the fourth hour on the ledge. In her clouded mind, she replays past traumas that are impossible to ignore. Also impossible to ignore, is the crowd of about 100 bystanders below her – filming, urging, and cheering her on. Rescue workers try to talk her down. The fourth hour passes, she escapes a policeman’s grasp, telling him, “brother, thank you, I want to go to heaven,” and she leaps to her death.
The young woman is 19-year-old Li Yiyi. She had claimed that, at age 16, she was sexually assaulted by her teacher in her school’s rest area while recovering from a stomachache. She tirelessly sought legal charges against her attacker, but to no avail. The teacher was detained for 10 days. He maintained he had conducted a “physical examination”, and was eventually released on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence.
China Times, among other media, report that Li suffered severe depression and PTSD from the incident and the treatment of her case by her school and local court, before leaping to her death on June 21, 2018.
Yiyi is not alone.
A 2015 survey conducted by Sina.com and For Him Magazine, of more than 65,000 men and 62,000 women, found about 66 per cent of the men and 80 per cent of the women said they had been sexually harassed. In a 2013 UN Population Fund survey of one Chinese county, one in five male respondents admitted to having committed rape, and 44 per cent of men said they had engaged in physical violence against an intimate partner.
You’d think, with these kind of reported numbers, the #MeToo movement in China would’ve been as widespread as the issue itself. But while the anti-sexual violation movement exploded in Hollywood late last year and spread throughout the world, it battled to gain momentum in China.
Women such as Li Yiyi are why China needs the #MeToo movement, and why Chinese women continue to take to social media with their stories.
The turning point was on January 1 of this year, when Luo Xixi became the first woman to publicly speak up about her experience. Inspired by the global #MeToo movement, she posted an open letter to multiple social media platforms about her PhD supervisor harassing her in the past. Now based in the United States, Xixi felt safe to do so. She asked for other women to come forward too. It was not the first time the man had been accused. He was suspended by China’s Beihang University on the same day.
In her letter, Luo Xixi wrote: “I’m exposing this because I want it to be the beginning.” It was.
Joanna Chiu is a Canadian foreign correspondent for Agence France-Presse, covering the #MeToo movement in China extensively through the sharing of women’s stories.
She says there weren’t many ripples in China until Luo Xixi spoke up. “People were sharing the articles in English and stuff like that, but it didn’t make an impact as far domestically,” she says. “It was only the January new year’s day message from Luo Xixi where #MeToo exploded in China, and that really surprised a lot of people because there’s not that much awareness about sexual assault, sexual harassment and things around consent.”
From there, before posts were censored, banned and deleted, according to a NBC news report, the #MeTooInChina hashtag got nearly 4.5 million clicks on the country’s Twitter-like platform Weibo in it’s first two weeks.
In Shanghai, where Chiu is a guest speaker at an event called ‘Women and Work in China, post #MeToo’, she tells the audience: “#MeToo in China could have been way bigger, and it’s still continuing, these conversations, they’re not completely censored. But for people organising petitions, they’re being deleted, and some people are actually being controlled by the police saying ‘stop telling your story’.”
Because of this, in the first few months of the year, the movement battled to expand beyond universities.
Jiamin Hu, a master’s student at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, talks with passion and anger about these issues. She says sexual assault and harassment are extremely common in universities, especially when the academic staff have more power than their students.
Chiu explains why the conversation has been happening in universities. “China’s students in top universities are so cosmopolitan, they take in a lot of stuff from international news, so it makes sense that they would feel that what happened to them was wrong and that they would be willing to talk about it, and even sign petitions, even professors would sign petitions, and get harassers suspended or fired. But it just really hasn’t expanded outside of the university.”
Well, the #MeToo movement did end up expanding beyond campuses in China, and in full force.
July saw a complete resurgence in the movement and in the month’s final week, more than 20 different women from different industries came out with allegations.
Amongst the accused was one of China’s most watched television hosts, a Chinese anti-discrimination campaigner, an environmentalist, three journalists, an academic and China’s highest-ranking Buddhist monk.
In it’s wake, 没有同意就是性侵, “No consent means sexual assault,” began trending across platforms including Weibo and WeChat.
And it still continues. These cases and the resurgence as a whole proved that even through the censorship battles, Chinese women will rise up.
How do you raise awareness when you’re constantly being silenced?
Jiamin Hu says there’s a lot of activism in feminism around her, especially in Shanghai, but it’s underground. “We definitely suffer with censorship, so we do these things underground, and try aid it in WeChat or email by secret.”
One of the underground grassroots projects that empowers Chinese women to combat gender-based discrimination is “We and Equality”. The project takes the form of a WeChat subscription account, run solely by Joy Lin. Lin quit her job as a head-hunter in the corporate sector in 2016 to dedicate her life to the cause.
Lin’s Shanghai apartment is decorated with rainbow flags. A beaded creation hangs from her drawer that reads ‘feminist’.
When asked what she noticed about working in the corporate sector in terms of sexual harassment, she says it is common. “Back then, I think I experienced more than I could really realise, because I didn’t even know that it was sexual harassment before. I just thought, you know, this is common, this happens all the time,” she says.
“Now when I think of it, it’s sad. But luckily now I’m not that person anymore. I can try my best to help people.”
And she does.
As a part of Lin’s work, she interviews people for projects and reports, she publishes informative articles weekly on gender-based issues, and holds workshops for women. One of the workshops took the form of a psychological healing, where those in attendance sat together to share stories. At the last one, she tells me, almost half of the girls spoke about how they were sexually abused when they were young.
“They’d never told their story to anybody else, like that they got harassed or raped when they were less than 10 years old. And some, when they talked with me, they naturally cry, because probably in their own life, they couldn’t really find a person who doesn’t judge them when they listen,” she says.
Lin tells me beyond listening, she feels helpless. “I don’t really know what I can do for it because I’m very small. Even if I have a social media account, still, the whole media is controlled by the capital or by the authorities,” she says.
“[The media] are always telling girls, ‘you are too fat, you need to lose weight’ and ‘you are not beautiful enough,’ and things like that, and ‘you need to get married and have children,’ and women are dehumanised” – Joy Lin
Another organisation that aims to promote feminism in China is Ladyfest Shanghai.
Joanna Asia Palmowska, one of the founding organisers, says up until #MeToo and its aftermath, people didn’t know what to do if they or their friends were sexually abused due to the lack of support structures. “Truth be told if you go to the police, there is language barriers often, and if there isn’t, if you’re Chinese, then it might be treated as a private issue to be dealt with in that relationship. So there are a lot of support systems that are non-existent,” she says.
“In many ways, women in China seem to be in a very privileged situation because, as a Communist country, it assumes that everybody is equal, in a way…But then there is a lot of limiting cultural stereotypes that seem to be working to the detriment of women.”- Joanna Asia Palmowska
Safe Haven is another organisation which is hoping to change that, by offering help to victims of domestic violence through a support hotline and providing case managers and peer advocates to women in need.
Melanie Ham is a board member and volunteer coordinator of Safe Haven. She tells me the initiative stemmed from finding out the extent of domestic violence within her community, and how alienating and isolating it was. “You don’t know where to turn, and there’s very limited resources,” she says.
The service that Safe Haven proposes is desperately needed. Beyond sexual assault on campuses – domestic violence is a huge issue in China. And the issue doesn’t discriminate between homes and cities.
“Shanghai has one of the highest rates of domestic violence up there with Tibet,” Ham says. “And part of that is because I think, in Shanghai there’s this idea that it doesn’t happen.Shanghai women have a reputation for being especially fierce, very strong, and independently willed. So I think that’s why there’s this lack of resource.”
Official government figures suggest one in four Chinese women have experienced domestic violence. According to research by UN Women China, experts place the number higher, due to underreporting.
The first and only domestic violence law was only introduced in late 2016, and according to Lin, it’s flawed. She says the people who really need the protection of the law, don’t know the law exists. “Even when they really collect themselves together and then go to the police station, the policeman would ask them to get back because this is a family matter, it’s like an in-house matter. So there is a huge gap of the awareness of what domestic violence is between people.”
Women being terrified to report what’s happened to them is common, but its especially prevalent in China. “Insufficient evidence” like in Li Yiyi’s story, is a common denominator among the cases that do go to court.
At the Women and Work event in Shanghai, Lesli Ligorner is also a guest speaker. She appears often on the list of the best lawyers in China and works closely on anti-harassment and diversity policies. “Now in practice, we know what’s written in the black-letter law is not always what is enforced and that’s where there is a real lack of enforcement,” she tells the audience.
Ligorner, an American woman, compares the laws in China to the United States’ laws of the past in her explanation to the audience: “It’s more often the individual doesn’t feel comfortable going to the police or going to their employer, so like in the old [United States] rape laws, the burden of proof was always on the female – if you were wearing the short skirt, you asked for it,” she says. “It’s a he-said-she-said very often, it’s a ‘she’s got to prove it’… there’s more the shame here in China, and in Asia in general, that it is the woman who brought it on herself.”
The women who have told Joanna Chiu their stories, often report that they were brushed off by police when coming forward. “Police in China seem to not have very good training about how to talk to sexual assault or harassment victims,” she says. “Police would try to convince them to drop the case or ask them questions like, ‘what were you wearing?’, ‘where were you with him?’, in ways that make the victim quite upset, or they don’t take the case at all because it’s really hard to prosecute.”
And the cycle continues. #MeToo pushes through, but with a lack of faith in the legal system in China, telling their stories may be the only power women have. As Sophie Richardson, the Human Rights Watch director for China writes: “But these #MeToo accusations may jumpstart a broader movement showing abusers that women are fed up with being silent victims, and the government that it needs to amend the laws to give victims justice.”
Joy Lin tells me about the constant angry mental state she’s in. “How can our society treat our girls like this?” she exclaims, sounding like she’s at her wits end.
Yet she believes there is hope for a revolution, and although everything else in China is fast paced, this just isn’t one of those things.
“There are more and more people encouraged to share their stories because of the #MeToo movement,” she says. “When you think it’s getting quiet, there will be a big piece of news. So anytime when you don’t remember the #MeToo movement, as a netizen in China, you will be reminded.”
The 2018 Shanghai Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.