China’s universities have been at the centre of its #MeToo movement

Student protests have won victories since the movement began two years ago, but big changes must be made to protect women’s rights in China, says Lü Pin

February 24, 2020
MeToo sign

China recently marked the second anniversary of its #MeToo movement and despite no robust legislation to curb sexual harassment on a national or institutional level, the movement has had some important victories driven mostly by students.

Considering China’s ongoing censorship that has silenced various civic voices, the emergence and persistence of #MeToo should be regarded as a sort of miracle. It all began in January 2018, when an aeronautics and astronautics PhD graduate from Beihang University in Beijing disclosed that she was sexually harassed for over a decade by her former advisor. She posted the revelation online under her real name, after being disappointed by the university’s indifferent response to her claim.

Several days later, the first #MeToo victory thrilled its proponents as the university cancelled the professor’s teaching qualification, and the ministry of education promised to create prevention mechanisms for sexual harassment on campus.

However, after the graduate’s online announcement, numerous posts and accounts expressing support for victims were deleted without any reason. From then on, victims, fellow students, volunteers, and advocates have had to battle sexual harassment deniers and the suppression of free speech.

Advocates and organisers began keeping low profiles because of persecution from the police, which meant that ordinary netizens became the decentralised force behind the movement.

Then in February 2018, more than 300 overseas scholars and students signed a petition to urge the ministry of education to take responsibility for instituting anti-sexual harassment measures. In April, Peking University students and a few others from some of the most prestigious universities gathered to object to the poor response from universities on a number of cases. At the end of July that year, accusations of sexual harassment against a few celebrities led #MeToo to another unprecedented level of public awareness.

Since then, because of an increasing tightening of public spaces in China, the movement has focused on a few specific cases rather than growing into a collective protest. Still, cases of sexual misconduct from professors at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics in 2019 and the Central Academy of Fine Arts earlier this year, among other universities, have served to bring the topic back into the public sphere.

Universities have been the primary site of China’s #MeToo movement – but not because sexual harassment is more prevalent on campuses or that power relationships there are any less hierarchical, which would make reporting easier.

It’s partly because of the increasing imbalance in the power that the authorities grant to professors and students. And, like in other countries, young students in China who have not yet been co-opted into the establishment have always been the vital force behind social movements.

Another notable shift is that an increasing number of young Chinese people believe in gender equality, even though they do not learn about it in school and the term “feminism” is still severely stigmatised. 

In terms of policy change, the ministry of education released some loose guidelines around “professional morality”, which condemn sexual harassment, but universities have failed to keep their word to create anti-sexual harassment policies. Nevertheless, there have been some encouraging signs of progress, such as the Supreme Court adding sexual harassment to its list of acts that can be litigated, at the end of 2018.

Public opinion remains closed to the idea that sexual harassment exists and needs policy and legislation to address it – most people do not understand or are not concerned about victims’ struggles. For example University of Minnesota student Liu Jingyao, whose accusations against the billionaire Richard Liu provoked intense backlash on the internet, told The New York Times: “There were probably just three types of people in her corner: women who have been sexually assaulted, feminists and people who know her…10 per cent [of news consumers in China] at best.”

Even if it is yet to make systemic changes to protect women's rights, China’s #MeToo movement has pushed the issue of sexual harassment on to the public agenda and has compelled the authorities and the public to hear women’s voices. And it has energised women. In October 2019, Huang Xueqin, an independent journalist and supporter of #MeToo, was arrested in Guangzhou on the charge of “picking a quarrel and making trouble”. Huang’s release in January 2020 did not relieve fears of suppression of civic activism, but also did not reduce the courage of #MeToo supporters, most of whom did not even know about Huang’s prosecution due to information blockades.

After a few victories brought on by university students, it’s only a matter of time before another opportunity arises to spread awareness and get even more people involved in social change.

Lü Pin (吕频) is a leading Chinese feminist activist. In 2009, she founded Feminist Voices, China’s largest new media platform for women’s rights. She is currently a researcher at the State University of New York Albany.

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