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The Feminist Five, a Chinese performance art groupvia artnet

#WoYeShi: How Chinese women are responding to #MeToo

People are finally making their voices heard despite harsh social control

While Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Hanoi jumped to participate in #MeToo’, though not much on the subject had come from China, where social control is strict, and few are able to actively speak out against misogyny. A recent study found 80 per cent of the female population experiences sexual assault at some point in their work lives. Now, though, Chinese women are slowly breaking their silence, and quite possibly defying their government through the hashtag #WoYeShi, thanks to the efforts of Luo Qianqian.

On January 1, Luo published an account of being sexually accounted by her professor, urging women to “stand up bravely and say ‘No!’”.

In a conversation with The Guardian, Chinese feminism movement expert Hong Fincher said the government and its aggressive efforts to avoid any coverage of the feminist movement meant that it has been harder for this movement to get off the ground. “There is a history of the Chinese government being really worried about political upheaval outside its borders affecting its own population and there is no question whatsoever that the #MeToo movement is seen by the authorities as potentially posing a threat.”

A look at internet activity in China in the past few months supports Fincher’s statements. Inspired by #MeToo, another woman, Xu Yalu, posted an account of being molested by an elderly man to China’s popular social media platform, WeChat, in November 2017. Her article, which also denounced the police’s incompetence in helping her, went viral with 1.19 million views and almost 9000 comments, before Chinese authorities deleted it from the platform.

It isn’t just government intervention that Chinese women have to deal with: women who report sexual assault, whether to the authorities or on social media, regularly report facing public shaming, crippled legal systems, police inaction, and in some cases, crackdown from authorities. The latter, especially, has concern women and human rights activists ever since President Xi Jinping came into power in 2012: in 2015, five activists were jailed after plotting to distribute posters against sexual assault on public transportation.

Women’s rights activists and lawyers have also regularly complained about the lack of female police officers in China, as well the absence of a legal system saliently equipped to handle sexual offense claims. Lu Xiaoquan, a Beijing-based firm, told the South China Morning Post that it’s difficult to prevent and punish sexual harassment in the country because there are no laws against it. Workplace harassment is treated as labour dispute, and thus easily dismissed.  

Even so, activists continue to support the #WoYeShi movement in their own ways. Former journalist, Huang Xueqin, became one of the early torchbearers of the movement by going public with her story of assault. She is currently conducting a survey of Chinese media to uncover the extent of sexual harassment in the industry.

“I know I’ve opened a floodgate,” Huang told the South China Morning Post. “Journalists are supposed to be more resourceful and skilful advocates than others. If they don’t know how to speak out for themselves, what about the rest of the women in this country?”

With #WoYeShi, Hong Fincher is hoping for more voices to join the debate. She recently told The Guardian that only the “tiniest, tiniest tip of the iceberg has been exposed”, adding, “If people like me don’t break the silence, how can you expect others to? I need to be the whistleblower. Someone has to do something.”